Arizona Courts Try To Do More With Less

Our law firm litigates a lot. At any given time, we have dozens of cases pending before various courts all over the state of Arizona. As a result, we get a pretty darned good look at the quality of jurisprudence provided to Arizonans by their judicial system. We are happy to report that the quality is high. Cases move to trial in this state much faster than in most states with comparable populations. The quality of our judges, both at the Superior Court level and in the appellate courts, is impressive in its consistent level of quality. Many recent polls of lawyers and other court users have also been in universal agreement that satisfaction with Arizona’s court system is generally very high. This positive opinion is shared by the business community, as well. The most recent (2008) US Chamber of Commerce survey ranked Arizona 15th overall among the 50 states for the quality of its judicial system. Arizona received among the highest marks for perception of judges’ “impartiality” and “competence.”

This level of competence is particularly impressive when viewed in light of the most recent fiscal stresses our judicial system has had to contend with. As everyone knows, our state’s economy has suffered significantly since the beginning of the recent Great Recession and the collapse of the real estate market. This has meant a tightening of the state’s budget and, as a result, less money designated for the courts. Since 2008, the state’s Judicial Branch has seen its general fund allocation decrease by 17%. But, unlike  many other parts of state government, a downturn in the economy doesn’t mean a decrease in the workload of the courts. It is a perverse truism that, when the economy is bad, the courts’ business actually increases. Over the past two fiscal years, statewide superior court civil filings have increased by 50%. Contract lawsuits, in particular, have increased: up by 90%. Economic recession leads to a modest up-tick in crime, as well, so criminal prosecutions are up in most counties, also.  What does this increase in demands on our courts mean, in practical terms?  For one thing: a reduction in court staff in most counties has resulted in cases taking longer to process. The demands can be staggering – in Maricopa County, for example, the Superior Court Clerk receives 45,000 pages of new filings every day.

Our state judges and justices are doing an admirable job of keeping the system functioning during this tough economic period. Reduced budgets are a reality that all of state government has been forced to deal with. Still, we are concerned that continued reductions in the funds allocated to the Judicial Branch will eventually begin to produce real negative effects on the quality of jurisprudence Arizona’s citizens receive. For the sake of our clients and all others who utilize our state’s courts, we hope that our legislators will begin to restore funding to the judiciary at the earliest possible time.