Four Views on a Political Windfall You’ll Want to Know
The opening line of the National Association for Court Management Model Code reads that service to the judicial branch involves a public trust. Part of that trust is upholding the integrity and impartiality of the judicial branch above all other functions, such as the collection of revenue. Canon 1.1 of the Code tells us to perform our assigned duties honestly and openly, but politics can change the circumstances in which courts find themselves, sometimes to the court’s detriment, but sometimes for the better. Do we reject the temptation to diminish courts’ basic function even when it could benefit our own court?
Jess is the court administrator for Blaine County’s four-judge superior court. Blaine’s county seat, Newburgh, is the home of its municipal court and its court administrator, Tripp.
For years Jess has offered proposals to the Blaine County Board of Supervisors that would significantly increase the court’s budget but with little success. The overall theme of her budget presentations has always been to remind the board that the purpose of the superior court is to dispense justice, not to generate revenue. Promoting this theme has been easy since the superior court’s revenue has never exceeded its expenditures.
Meanwhile, Tripp regularly expounded to the Newburgh City Council how much revenue the municipal court generated for city taxpayers. Each new program he proposed carried the subtle inference of even more revenue increases in the future.
Tripp’s programs were funded; Jess’s proposals usually were not. Superior court initiatives languished.
This year the state legislature consolidated the state’s superior and municipal courts. Cities and counties still receive percentages from fines and fees; however, the counties must still fund facilities, maintenance, infrastructure, and technology support. Tripp decides to retire leaving Jess in charge of the new consolidated superior court that includes the Newburgh Municipal Court operation. For the first time, superior court revenues will most likely exceed expenditures.
Jess is tempted to spotlight the new revenue projections in her annual budget presentation. A part of her thinks it is hypocritical to start emphasizing revenue after years of lecturing the board that revenue is not why courts exist. Another part of her thinks that politics is politics, and one has to use every advantage to seize the resources the court so desperately needs.
I have asked Jennifer Carter, court manager for the Williams Justice and City Courts in Williams, Arizona; Katherine Moncrief, senior contracts administrator for the Orange County Superior Court, California; Theresa Ewing, court director for the municipal court in Fort Worth, Texas; and Cherie Lusk, court manager for the King County Municipal Court in Issaquah, Washington to give their viewpoints about the scenario.
Would you emphasize to the board that the court will be generating more revenue?
Both Theresa Ewing and Katherine Moncrief said they would bring up the fact that the superior court would be collecting more revenue. Theresa thought the key, however, is how to frame the presentation. “Consolidation of courts can bring efficiencies and allow for more resources to focus on the collection of judgments that have been imposed. Enforcement of judgments is what we are charged to do.”
Katherine Moncrief said she would emphasize how the county’s funding would enhance the court’s efforts. “Since Tripp always included it in his budget, I would continue to do the same.” She would also include the fact that the revenue increase may be a one-off because the municipal and superior courts have merged. “The long-term impact on the budget of merging the courts is not yet known.”
Jennifer Carter said she would continue presenting as she always has done but would bring up the changes in the court’s structure and the projected revenue and expenditures totals. “Revenue would not be the focus of my presentation but giving the revenue numbers along with expenditures numbers would help the board in seeing the totality of the budget and can help in making future decisions.”
Cherie Lusk responded that she would not bring up revenue generation. She would present the numbers thoroughly, accurately, and honestly. The board could draw its own conclusions about revenue. “Remaining consistent and continuing to convey the purpose and responsibilities of the courts is imperative and demonstrates integrity.”
Can Jess present the budget without raising expectations that the court will “raise revenue” to offset operating costs?
To Cherie, Jess will need to represent the court’s position, while remembering the board’s fiscal responsibility for the operations of Blaine County. “[Jess’s] focus should be taking every opportunity possible to educate the board and promote the judicial system, and not send a message that the Court is expected to ‘raise money’ in any way.”
Theresa thought Jess could absolutely both present the budget and limit expectations about raising revenue. “Financial obligations are part of sentencing. Some of those obligations are set in ranges and some are set as fixed amounts. Regardless, if a judge imposes a financial obligation as part of sentencing, it is the court’s obligation to collect it.”
Theresa went on to note that Jess should never directly connect revenue and expenditures as a one-to-one ratio. “This is especially important as we look to sentences that also include incarceration. The likelihood of someone incarcerated paying back the financial obligation imposed is reduced significantly.” Theresa also pointed out that in her court when they discuss fiscal accountability with their funding authority, they refer to the collection of fines and fees, not revenue.
Unfortunately, there is still so much education to be done about the court’s role.
To Jennifer, Jess needs to continue presenting to the board the facts of what a court’s obligation is and the facts of the budget. She pointed out that it is the obligation of the court, the judges, and the staff to enforce court orders and to provide justice for their customers. “My focus of the budget meeting would not be the increased revenue, but I would bring up the fact that the courts will see an increase in revenue due to the combining of courts.”
Katherine would describe the new court consolidation as simply as possible, noting the corresponding laws. “I would also include any historical information or visually appealing graphics to show that as well.”
Is altering the budget presentation to focus on revenue hypocritical or just practical?
Cherie thought that altering her budget presentation to focus on revenue was hypocritical. Jess would be doing exactly what she had argued against. “Jess should remain consistent with her comments about the court’s roles and responsibilities. She may have opportunities to present a positive financial impact with the board in other ways, like creating efficiencies that cut the costs of running the court, in order to demonstrate the court’s commitment to using its funding in a publicly responsible way.”
Katherine did not think it was hypocritical. “Unfortunately, there is still so much education to be done about the court’s role. With that said, budget, especially for government organizations, is a very ‘interesting’ topic and should be addressed. I don’t think she is altering the budget—she is tailoring her presentation to meet her audience’s needs and interests. I also don’t believe that playing politics is necessarily unethical.”
Theresa saw that the story had changed. Jess is now in charge of collecting financial obligations that are more obtainable than was previously the case. This will allow for greater success; she should highlight her (and her team’s) successes in the ability to collect court obligations. “I would recommend that she segregate the types of cases and the ability to collect on them to set the correct expectation though.”
Jennifer recommended that focusing completely on revenue would not be the direction to go. “Jess needs to continue to focus her presentations as she always has in the past, but to touch on the revenue increases with the combining of the courts. There is nothing wrong with talking about the facts of the budget, so the board is completely informed prior to making a decision.”
What are the likely consequences of concentrating on revenue? What are the likely consequences of avoiding a revenue discussion?
The most likely consequence, according to Katherine, would be the board believing that the court can self-sustain. This might be possible during good years, but there will be years that the court will need additional funding. The Board could incorrectly assume that the court could always find new ways to generate funds when, in reality, the court does not have that ability. “In California, for example, certain DMV holds were taken away, reducing the court’s leverage in collecting late fees. That legislation is out of the court’s control, but still caused an impact to the court’s budget.”
Jennifer warned that focusing solely on revenue sets a standard before the board that the court’s goal is to increase revenue year after year; that is not how a court operates. “Continue to focus on what the courts are doing and how they are improving efficiencies. Revenue should be a part of your presentation but not the only topic that is touched upon.”
Jennifer added that when a court avoids talking about the revenue, then it fails to inform the board of the totality of the court’s operation. “Revenue is a part of the courts because we take in money. By avoiding the ‘revenue’ talk, you neglect to give the board all of the information that they can use to make the best decision in moving forward on any operation requests that you may have.”
Theresa admitted that it gets tricky when there is a joint court system, although collecting financial obligations is important regardless of the jurisdiction. The challenge is framing a story that differentiates cases that are easier to enforce. “It is easier to collect on a speeding judgment than someone who is sentenced to 10 years in prison and given a $10,000 fine (or restitution) for aggravated assault. I think if you avoid the conversation, you are leaving out an important part of the court’s role in public safety. Don’t be afraid to discuss enforcement, just ensure you are framing your story correctly.”
Cherie cautioned that emphasizing revenue generation puts the court’s public trust and confidence in jeopardy. “The judicial system needs to be viewed as fair and impartial and being in the business of making money does not align with those obligations.”
However, Cherie advised that by not presenting the political position of generating revenue, Jess could run the risk of her proposals not being funded. “Proposals presented by other Blaine County entities that show greater opportunities for revenue may be more appealing to the Board in times of tight budgets and public-funding concerns.”
I deeply appreciate Jennifer Carter, Katherine Moncrief, Cherie Lusk, and Theresa Ewing for the perspectives they have offered on this issue. The politics of changing organizations can provide opportunities but can also raise ethical concerns. We always need to be aware when there is a nexus between politics and ethics.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter C. Kiefer has spent over four decades working for the courts in Oregon, California, and Arizona, as well as on rule-of-law projects in Liberia, Moldova, and Beirut.