As states faced massive budget deficits in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, all aspects of state government faced draconian cuts. But unlike schools, public safety, infrastructure, health care, and other critical pieces of any state budget, state court systems did not have a natural political constituency. As a result, as demand for the courts increased, funding continued to decline.
Complicating the challenge for the state courts in any budget battle is the uneasy separation of powers that leaves the judicial branch completely dependent upon the legislative and executive branches for its funding, and thus its ability to effectively and independently fulfill its mission.
The National Center for State Courts was created in 1971 at the urging of Chief Justice Warren Burger to serve as an information clearinghouse, so that innovations in one court could benefit all courts. Its mission today is to improve judicial administration through leadership and service to all state courts.
GBAO was retained by the National Center for State Courts and their partners at Justice At Stake to help them understand the challenges facing courts in budget battles in their respective states, and to devise a communications strategy for advocating for court funding in states across the country.
We started with focus groups in 3 states, exploring in great detail how voters (some of whom had direct experience with the courts in the previous 18 months, and others who did not) perceived the courts, their attitudes on government spending in general and funding of the courts in particular, and their responses to a variety of messages focused on protecting funding for state courts.
Taking the learning from these groups to refine our messages and better frame the stakes of the debate for voters, we conducted a national survey of registered voters that provided clear guidance on the best strategies and messages for shifting public attitudes on the courts and winning public support for protecting or increasing court funding.
We concluded our research with in-depth one-on-one interviews with key policymakers in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches in 3 states to gain their insiders’ perspectives on the budget-making process, and to learn how current strategies and messages employed by the courts were received by those in the other two branches.
The result of this ambitious research project was an aggressive two-pronged communications strategy. The first piece of this plan was a short term, ‘inside baseball’ strategy focused on winning the budget battles happening at that moment in legislatures across the country. The second piece was a longer term effort to change public perceptions of state courts, improve customer service, and reframe the funding debate from its existing focus on government spending to one built around protecting constitutional protections and making critical investments to improve the efficiency of the court system.
The documents produced by the National Center for State Courts based on this research helped court systems across the country protect their funding, reduce backlogs, and improve customer service. As we have traveled the country briefing various legal audiences on this and other research conducted by NCSC, we are consistently told that this research and analysis remains an indispensable tool for court administrators across the country.