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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
-- December 9, 2002