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Funding Justice: Strategies and Messages for Restoring Court Funding

Bert BrandenburgJesse Rutledge Posted in Guest Posts, Rule One

When state courts are strained or crippled by budget cuts—and it’s all too familiar a scenario around the country—how can we make the strongest case possible for adequate funding? At the National Center for State Courts and at Justice at Stake, we’ve compiled “Funding Justice: Strategies and Messages for Restoring Court Funding.” It offers a comprehensive blueprint for legal groups and civic leaders to champion effectively the needs of America’s courts.

It contains tools such as the most persuasive messages to deliver and, alternatively, those messages that can backfire and should be avoided. For those of us who may be too wonky or legalistic in our approaches, the messaging guide provides the best real-world themes to gain traction for court funding.  The guide is entirely based on a nationwide opinion research project that included focus groups, a poll of American voters, and interviews with chief justices, legislators, and others closely involved in debates around court funding.

“Funding Justice” advises, for example: “Focus on harm to taxpayers and the economy – not damage to the courts.” It underscores the idea that “It’s not about you. It’s about them.”

“Funding Justice” also warns against adopting a message that “[c]ourts are a ‘separate and co-equal’ branch of government and thus should be treated with greater respect in the budget process” because  it “falls on deaf ears with the public,” the guide says. What’s more, “Americans overwhelmingly felt that the courts should not get special treatment, and the judiciary should be expected to tighten its belt – like everyone else.”

Because there are no silver bullets, and the “public blames delays on courts, not cuts,” “Funding Justice” suggests that a marathon approach to winning restored funding makes more sense than a sprint. It advocates a two-tiered strategy, with court leaders making their best case to budget policymakers now while also launching a longer-term campaign for public education and support. Other support-building strategies include:

  • Embrace demands for austerity, and show how courts will be effective stewards of taxpayer dollars. Remind audiences of the courts’ core mission of delivering fair and timely justice.
  • It is important to pick the best messenger as well as the right message. Retired judges and small-business owners persuade the public most effectively. Legislators are most open to hearing from supreme court justices, fellow lawmakers who are lawyers, and from constituents, especially when they are judges, lawyers, business leaders, and court users.
  • Engage the public with transparency, honesty, and specifics. To credibly make the case for more resources, courts must first acknowledge their own shortcomings; only then can they convince the public they are a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

“Whether budgets improve soon, or a ‘new normal’ has set in, everyone who cares about the courts needs to improve their efforts to help them secure adequate resources,” states an introduction to the guide. We hope “Funding Justice” provides both the blueprint and the tools to build a foundation for that improvement.