Justice De Muniz calls for re-engineering courts to cope with tight budgets

NEW YORK - State courts need to take the lead in remaking themselves if they are to continue functioning in an era of chronic budget crises, Oregon Chief Justice Paul De Muniz told a forum at New York University School of Law last week.

De Muniz, JD '75, called for "a new brand of judicial activism" - one aimed not at reinterpreting constitutional provisions but at re-engineering court procedures and practices to extend scarce resources.

State courts, he said, "are increasingly perceived as too big, too costly and too cumbersome. They rely on obsolete procedures to carry out core functions, and face challenges to their continued viability as co-equal branches of government."

De Muniz said court leaders should view state budget crises as an opportunity to improve the quality and productivity of judicial services. Judges, he said, must ask themselves "Why do we do what we do, and why do we do it in this particular way?"

De Muniz spoke to about 100 attendees at the 17th William J. Brennan Jr. Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice. He was introduced by Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals.

To lead a state court system in 2010, Lippman said, "is to be in the eye of the storm, to say the least. It's about being a statesman, an advocate and sometimes a fighter." De Muniz, he said, "understands what it is to be that kind of state court leader."

Lippman credited DeMuniz with keeping Oregon courts functioning as well as possible during a time of recession, falling tax revenues and budget cuts. De Muniz "exemplifies the very best of state court leadership in this country," Lippman said. "He brings tremendous intelligence, passion and work experience to whatever he does."

Among the changes De Muniz suggests are centralizing court administrative and support staff, both within and among courthouses; making greater use of specialized courts; moving more court business online; and more aggressively pushing litigants into private arbitration, "mini-trials" with six-person juries and other alternative forums.

Many states, including Oregon, are going through their second economic slump in less than a decade. Court systems have responded to budget cuts by raising fees, furloughing staff, leaving judicial positions vacant and even closing courthouses several days a month.

Those are short-term fixes at best, DeMuiz said, and even after state budgets recover courts shouldn't expect to extract much more cash from legislatures. Appealing to the courts' status as equal branches of government or their roles in resolving society's toughest problems won't work.

"We can't pretend that the arguments we have raised in the past are somehow going to save us," he said. "They have been trotted out again and again."

Since Oregon became a state 150 years ago, De Muniz said, each judge has had his or her own corps of clerks and assistants. That made sense "when assistants typed up 50-page decisions on Underwood typewriters and onionskin paper, but not anymore," he said.

Instead, support staff should be shared among the judges within a courthouse, he said. At the Oregon Supreme Court, such sharing enables four assistants to do the work formerly done by seven. Wider use of electronic filing and case-management systems could create a courthouse that's available to citizens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.

Special "complex litigation courts," such as the Lane County Commercial Court, can keep complex civil cases from burdening other courts, De Muniz said. Having such cases handled by experienced judges also facilitates pretrial settlements, he added.

The Brennan lecture series, named for the former U.S. Supreme Court justice who also served on New Jersey's highest court, has brought distinguished state supreme court justices to NYU Law School since 1995. The series is hosted by the Dwight D. Opperman Institute of Judicial Administration and the Brennan Center for Justice.

--Drew DeSilver