Rebel With a Cause

Paul Goldman

Disorder in the Court

Judicial spending is out of control, increasing 1,000 percent faster than the rate of Virginia's population growth over the past two decades.


This is one legal question you will not see debated on "Law and Order" or "The Practice". Of the three branches of Virginia government -- executive, legislative, or judicial -- which one is guilty of being the biggest budget buster, contributing the most to the state's nearly $2 billion in red ink?

The truth about this huge growth in Judicial spending is easily detailed. The total for the Judicial Department, as this branch is called in state appropriation lingo, was $133 million in the 1983-1984 biennium budget. For the 2003-2004 budget passed last May, this amount has now grown to $601 million. This hog-wild spending has thus mushroomed 4 1/2 times higher, more than triple the rate of inflation.

In current dollars and sense, this means the Judicial Branch is costing taxpayers a staggering total of $335 million in extra spending above what was necessary to keep pace with inflation.

Indeed, this is 1,000 percent faster than the growth in Virginia's population during the last two decades.

Why has the Judicial Branch budget exploded in recent years? There are several factors. Twenty years ago, the biennium state budget allocated about $3.8 million for the general administrative support and management line items of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Yet the current two-year budget says this will now cost $21.1 million, or 550% more. This is three times faster than the inflation adjusted value of a dollar, even though it only has 12 more employees today than a generation ago. Two decades ago, the state budget appropriated roughly $27 million for the state's Circuit Courts. The current budget funding line totals $160 million over the next two years. This is a $133 million increase, or nearly 600%.

It is expected to cost $100 million more for our General District Courts, a 330 percent jump. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts have seen their costs increase by over 400 percent. The Board of Bar Examiners today costs about $1.830 million. Back in the 1983-1984 budget, the cost was only $232,000. This is nearly 800 percent higher. Then there is the cost of the Combined District Courts and other parts of the Judicial Branch.

Admittedly, there has been a gigantic increase in the cost of providing legal representation for indigent defendants. Twenty years ago, the Judicial branch budget contained a general fund appropriation of $1.66 million for what is known as the Public Defender Commission. According to the current budget, this now costs taxpayers upwards of $45 million, an astronomical increase.

But even when we subtract out the cost of the public defender system, the rest of the Judicial Branch budget is over 400% higher today than it was a generation ago.

Admittedly, the overall cost of state government generally has significantly increased in the last 20 years. Moreover, the spending by the Judicial Department is only a little more than 1% percentof the total state budget: Better than 19 percent goes to the Department of Education and more than 13 percent is allocated to on the Department of Medical Assistance Services. Indeed, you could save the entire $601 million Judicial Department funding and still leave two-thirds of the current projected budget deficit untouched.

But this does not excuse the Judicial Branch for failing, at least to date, to publicly commit itself to the 15 percent cuts being asked of other governmental agencies. Even a 10 percent reduction in terms of the Judicial Department's general fund spending would save taxpayers over $57 million.

In terms of protecting Virginia's poor children, the frail elderly, and those workers struggling up the ladder of success, $57 million is a substantial sum of money.

All three branches of government must do their part to make sure we don't unnecessarily cut into the state's safety net or public schools during our current financial problems. As I have shown previously, the General Assembly Department can save $18 million by cutting its budget by the same amount the politicians claim they are being forced to cut many other state services.

In addition, the Office of Governor, Office of Lieutenant Governor and Office of Attorney General can likewise save taxpayers millions.

The Attorney General's office is given over $57 million in the current budget. Twenty years ago, the state's chief law enforcement official was able to do the job for $14.2 million. This is an increase of 400 percent, although some portion of the current budgetary appropriation does not come from the state's hard-pressed general fund.

But even a 15 percent reduction from the Attorney General's general fund appropriation will result in a greater than $5 million biennium budget saving. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor must also do their part, as they have promised to do. [A future column will discuss their spending].

Net, net: The cost of our legal system is growing far faster than the taxpayers can currently afford. The Judicial branch costs too much, and this is in addition to the expensive nature of private legal representation in our society at all levels.

In economic terms, there has been an excess in the amount of what I will call "political" spending in the state budget for our elected officials and their appointees, both to the bench and positions in the other two branches of government.

It would seem at least several hundreds of millions dollars might be cut from this "political" spending if we demanded that our politicians and their appointees lead by example in terms of stopping the growing budgetary red ink.

In this regard, the wild spending of the Judicial branch can no longer be considered as untouchable. The time has come for Chief Judge Hassell, Speaker Howell and Governor Warner to sit down together and agree that the Judicial Branch will cut it's spending, or risk a public backlash on the question of whether the Judicially powerful are letting the powerless bear an unfair share of the sacrifices required by the worst budget debacle in modern times.

-- December 9, 2002

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Paul Goldman, the Rebel With a Cause, was chief political strategist for the past two winning Democratic governors in Virginia and was credited with leading a "revolution in American politics" by The New York Times for his role in breaking America's 300-year-old color barrier in national politics.