Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb

Two seemingly unrelated stories came across my desk this week. But in their own ways, they demonstrate modern-day challenges faced by the courts — and by anyone who finds their legal matter brought before a judge.

The first story comes from Alabama. There, faced with severe budget cuts, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Sue Bell Cobb, has ordered a reduction in the number of days for trial. She also authorized the closure of all courts one day per week.

“The Chief Justice said years of underfunding are catching up. She predicted defendants will sit in jail longer while waiting for trial, people with civil suits and divorce cases will wait much longer to have them heard by a judge, and the courts’ ability to generate fines and fees to help fund state government will decline.”

In what may be the quotation of the year, Cobb said, “The courts are not a nicety. They are a necessity.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Chief Justice Cobb back in January, when I attended a criminal justice conference in New York. She spoke eloquently about the challenges facing state courts. Little did attendees know that Alabama would provide a graphic example of how bad things are getting.

Today’s open letter by the American Bar Association President stresses the difficulties. Stephen Zack recommends enactment of legislation that would provide a new funding source for courts:

“The answer is to leverage an existing program in the Department of Treasury to collect long-overdue court-ordered fines, restitution and other financial obligations from federal tax refunds. The National Center for State Courts estimates that there’s an accumulated total of $15 billion in such fees. Courts and crime victims do not have the resources to collect on those avoiding their responsibilities. This program would offer a practical, fair way to secure those funds.”

More on that as the story develops.

The second story was a Q&A with a law professor on the topic of “life without parole: the new death penalty.”

Read the complete conversation with Virginia Law Professor Josh Bowers.