SETTLING FOR MEDIOCRITY

May 17, 2007 11:00 pm

The draft budget recently released by Legislative co-chairs sends an unwelcome message to Oregon's businesses and communities. The message: a mediocre — at best — justice system is good enough for Oregon.

The recommended budget significantly under-funds the courts, the district attorneys and the justice department. Funding for the courts, in particular, would not even maintain current service levels, let alone recover from the losses of the past decade, upgrade efficiencies or craft innovative programs to serve the people of this state.

Interestingly, the budget's large and worthy boost in funding for Oregon State Police reveals a gross misunderstanding of the interdependence of our justice system. More police are a fine idea, but it makes no sense to arrest more people if you can't try them.

You can't try them without prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. You can't efficiently process caseloads with a 1980s computer system. And you'll keep arresting the same folks if you fail to support innovative programs like treatment courts that actu-ally make a difference.

It seems the Legislature fails to grasp that the work of the police relies on the work of the D.A.s, which relies on the work of defense attorneys, which relies on the work of professional court staff. And they all rely on having courthouses with working heating systems, security that keep citizens safe and structures that are not in imminent danger of collapse.

Meanwhile, everyone relies on competent judges to make fair, impartial and legally sound decisions. The co-chair's recommended budget keeps Oregon's judges the lowest-paid in the nation. It impairs our ability to attract the best lawyers from a full range of practice areas to a judicial career.

The biggest losers in this scenario may well be Oregon's businesses, which are already seeing fewer lawyers with experience in complex civil litigation turn to a career on the bench.

This spartan budget is hardly new. Oregon has spent years ignoring its judicial system and few have spoken up because judges are, by necessity, not a political bunch. But our utter neglect of an entire branch of government ought to matter to every Oregonian.

The "customers" of Oregon courts include all of us. We need courts to settle small disputes between neighbors and big disputes between businesses. We need them to keep us safe from random criminal acts on the street and from domestic violence in our own homes. We need them to equitably divide our assets in divorce and to enforce our wishes when we die. We need them to review the most complex questions of intellectual property law and we need them to process our traffic tickets. Regrettably, we even ask them to decide the fate of our children in custody disputes. Are these matters not worthy of investment?

The co-chairs stated their goal was to craft a budget that rewards innovation, customer service, efficiency and collaboration. Then they handed the court system a budget that thoroughly discourages all of the above.

Four years ago our state faced an enormous fiscal crisis. Like everything else, the court system was dramatically de-funded to keep a bare-bones system limping along. Now, with some fiscal health restored to the state, the Legislature has decided to make a bare-bones, mediocre system our long-term plan.

As a business owner, I am deeply concerned. As a husband and father, I am angry. As a lifelong Oregonian, I am saddened. And as a community leader, I am called upon to tell the Legislature that courts, in fact, matter. And this budget is woefully inadequate.

Albert Menashe is the President of the Oregon State Bar and Managing Partner of Gevurtz Menashe Larson & Howe PC.