NACM members know all too well how courts strain to cover basic expenses, much less innovations needed to help them adapt to seismic changes such as the exponential increase in debt collection and eviction cases on civil dockets. And the consequences are dire. Millions of civil court users face losing their children, housing, livelihood, and even liberty, most of them struggling to navigate the civil legal system, as well as traditional brick and mortar courthouses, without legal help.1
Many if not most courts lack the staff and resources to modernize and make justice more attainable by identifying and implementing new policies, processes, partnerships, and technologies to ensure fairness and efficiency for all. But help is available in the form of federal funding.
This article describes federal funding streams that can help mediate this mass harm to low-income people, many of whom are also people of color. It passes along knowledge gained during my tenure as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice, where I served as executive director of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), and later as director of the Justice in Government Project (JGP) at American University.2 Both LAIR and JGP’s work included identifying funding sources and other resources administered by the federal, state, and local executive branches to advance government policy priorities and expand access to justice.3
Part one briefly explains how and why policymakers make natural court partners given their many aligned interests. Part two provides a quick overview of federal agency funds that state courts can tap from state and local governments, as well as tribes, territories, and the District of Columbia. Finally, part 3 summarizes a series of case studies about courts already putting some of these federal funds to use.
Policies to promote housing stability, keep families together, stimulate economic development, promote workforce development, and improve public safety show up at the courthouse doors as filings for eviction, foreclosure, debt collection, bankruptcy, guardianships, domestic violence, child welfare removals, criminal record expungement, and so much more. Yet too few policymakers focus on the fact that courts enforce those policies. Likewise, many if not most court leaders know that federal agencies that create and implement legal rules often expressly permit courts to receive funds relevant to furthering agency policies.
Failing to harness federal supports for courts harms court administration, individual case management, and people involved in procedures that can drastically shape the life chances of whole families. It also damages trust in the rule of law.
Recent research by The Pew Charitable Trusts powerfully illustrates how courts can analyze their processes and data to address barriers to better achieve the fair administration of justice, law enforcement, and policy goals such as housing and economic stability.
For example, in Utah, Pew partnered with the Utah Bar Foundation to examine debt-collection-related civil court data to identify opportunities for improvements.4 Michigan’s similarly groundbreaking report5 also documented that debt collection had overwhelmed the state’s civil courts. Both point to the need to develop and implement more user-friendly and effective court processes, often tailored to parties proceeding pro se. Some of the overarching themes include helping people better understand their rights and obligations, making mediation available in rural areas with high concentrations of debt litigation, training court personnel to better communicate with pro se defendants, and dedicated debt collection dockets with personnel and judges thoroughly trained in the relevant doctrines and procedures.6 These reforms require funding, which federal agencies and their state administrators can and increasingly do provide.
A 2018 study by the AmeriCorps-funded California Judicial Council’s JusticeCorps program documented the effectiveness of that type of reform. It found that courthouse-based help for self-represented litigants (SRLs) led to more than 90 percent of JusticeCorps-member-assisted SRLs reporting that they were “much more likely” to understand the legal steps in cases such as eviction, debt collection, domestic violence, and other issues (e.g., what to do next, and how to prepare and file court forms).7
A growing body of literature shows that when litigants do not have legal help, even judges can be hard-pressed to ensure just outcomes. Take eviction actions, which too often cascade into homelessness and children having to quickly and frequently change schools. Represented tenants are more likely to remain in their homes, win or settle cases, and receive rent waivers than are those muddling through pro se.8 Even when tenants must leave their homes, those with representation often get more time to move, which greatly increases the chance of finding new housing, retaining furnishings, and making smoother school transitions for the kids involved.9 Along the same lines, domestic violence survivors who are represented by an attorney are more likely to obtain protective orders, restraining orders, child custody, and divorces. As a bonus that likely improves long-term outcomes, they also report greater feelings of personal growth and support and improved mental health than people who are not represented by an attorney.10
Studies like these point the way toward what is needed and some of the innovations alongside other efforts to modernize, streamline, and improve services and systems—and the public’s best shot at justice. Often all that stands in the way is finding a stable funding source.
Homegrown state and local funds will always be the core court-funding sources. But supplemental funds are also available. To simplify, this article considers those that come from two federal buckets: 1) “discretionary” (aka “competitive” or “direct”) grants that are administered by federal agencies and 2) pass-through funds (aka “formula”, “block,” and “open-end reimbursement”) administered by state and local governments. This second source, pass-through funds, can be underknown by courts and so gets more attention here.
Court administrators can manage both federal buckets via the State Justice Institute’s online Funding Toolkit.11 The SJI Funding Toolkit features resources to help applicants through the entire grant-seeking, grant-writing and grant-management process, such as planning checklists, sample documents, frequently asked questions, and fact sheets. It also provides technical assistance to provide support during the grant-writing and -development process. Importantly, the SJI Funding Toolkit is frequently updated to reflect the latest information about specific federal-funding opportunities.
Here’s a general overview of the two buckets:
A. Discretionary Federal Funds Awarded Directly from Federal Agencies
Discretionary grants are merit-based awards to eligible applicants. A federal grant-making agency accepts applications from across the country for discretionary funding, determines eligibility, and reviews the contents of the application. Then, based on statutory and regulatory constraints and its discretion, the federal agency determines which applicants receive awards and the amount of funding. Examples include the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Juvenile Drug Treatment Court program,12 DOJ Bureau of Justice Assistance’s adult court counterpart,13 and DOJ BJA’s Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, Substance Use Site-based Program.14 The SJI Funding Toolkit maintains a comprehensive database of current opportunities, as well as closed and archived information, that courts can use to prepare for grants likely to reappear in the next fiscal year.
B. Federal Pass-Through State- and Local-Government-Administered Funds
Every year, states receive billions in federal funds to advance public policies and programs related to matters that frequently arise in state court litigation, including employment, social services, housing, family stability, health care, income security, transportation, education, and public safety. States administer these federal pass-through or block,15 formula,16 and open-end reimbursement funds, and enjoy considerable flexibility in spending these federal funds. Amounts generally depend on specific statutory formulas related to the purpose of the funds, such as the number of crime victims or poverty population in the state. Of particular interest to courts is that some federal authorities expressly authorize state use of these federal funds on justice-related functions and activities.
One of the key differences between pass-through and discretionary funds is to whom the courts apply. Pass-through fund applications are made to the state or local government agencies. In contrast, courts apply for discretionary grants directly to the administering federal agency, which involves competing for those funds with applicants from across the country.
State, and sometimes local, executive-branch decision-makers then establish additional rules about who can receive the federal money and for what purpose. In short, state and local governments operate within constraints from federal authorizing statutes, regulations, formulas, sub-regulatory guidance, and degrees of flexibility. But they also enjoy a great deal of discretion in disseminating the money based on local priorities and administrative quirks. Pass-through funds may be particularly attractive sources to courts because, unlike the discretionary grants, states almost certainly get those federal funds as long they fulfill the federal requirements of the funding source—sometimes, getting that initial grant can lead to annual ongoing financial support.
III. Tiny Case Studies: Examples of Courts Tapping a Variety of Pass-Through Funds
With support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, this author published a series of National Center for State Courts Tiny Case Studies that take a deeper dive into how courts and court partners have obtained a variety of pass-through funds.17 Each of the bulleted examples below have a corresponding Tiny Case Study that describes the funding source, the recipient’s use of it, the court’s role in it, and the top tips and lessons learned to make sure you do not reinvent any wheels. Keep in mind that these summaries—found in the endnotes and hyperlinked in the text—are organized loosely by topic, but funding sources’ flexibilities typically allow other programs and activities.
A. Help for Self-Represented Litigants
Courts increasingly create programs and partnerships with social service and legal aid programs to provide assistance for self-represented litigants (SRLs). One Tiny Case Study spotlights federal AmeriCorps funds administered by state commissions.
State-administered federal AmeriCorps awards go to organizations meeting critical community needs, which have included court navigator programs in California and Illinois since 2004 and 2009, respectively. In these JusticeCorps programs, AmeriCorps members are trained to provide services to SRLs, ranging from providing literal navigation (guiding people around the courthouse and to self-help and legal aid resources), helping them fill out forms, informing them about their options, and, because the majority of members are bilingual, often helping SRLs in their native language.18
Some federal pass-through funds not only allow state administrators to include courts as eligible recipients but also allow spending on technology needs. Though particular statutory purposes constrain each funding source—for example, child support, crime victims, and housing—many funding streams can support needed technological updates, such as telephone and video conferencing for remote hearings, online guided interviews for court users, document assembly tools, livechat or hotlines, online self-help videos and information, online dispute resolution, and more. Tiny Case Studies cover the following examples:
- STOP (Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors) Violence Against Women Formula funds have allowed courts in Alabama, Indiana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York to create tools like e-filing, online resource hubs, and informational videos to better serve survivors of domestic violence.19
- Title IV-D, which authorizes an open-end reimbursement grant for state child support programs, funds several online dispute resolution (ODR) tools in Ottawa County, Michigan. These include texts to noncustodial parents regarding case status updates, texts about upcoming hearings, and a hearing check-in system to improve pre-hearing conferences. The county reports the tools have reduced the number of average monthly hearings and child-support-related arrest warrants and have increased child-support collections.20
- Technology-based innovations funded with pass-through money authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act helped keep courts accessible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts in New Hampshire and Kansas used a portion of their states’ CARES Act allocations to pivot their day-to-day activities online to support access to justice in the courts, enabling telework, remote proceedings, online document assembly, and the installation of computer terminals in courthouses and other public facilities for SRLs and individuals without Internet access in their homes.21
C. Court Partnerships
Courts can also consider pursuing these funds with justice system partners, such as legal aid, pro bono, and other social service organizations. Better still, some of those partners have more experience with, and staffing for, the grant application and administration processes and can include courts as a subrecipient with fewer responsibilities or even as a nonfinancial beneficiary without any grant management tasks. Several case studies offer examples:
- In Pennsylvania, a Community Development Block Grant was pivotal to establishing the Philadelphia Eviction Prevention Project, which helps low-income tenants avoid eviction with resources such as court navigators, on-site legal staff, and same-day representation for eviction hearings. A coalition of legal aid nonprofits and financial counselors apply for and manage the funds, improving fairness and reducing burdens on courts.22
- With federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA) funds authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act, Cook County, Illinois courts collaborated with the Chicago Bar Foundation, legal aid societies, and bar associations to help launch the Cook County Legal Aid for Housing and Debt (CCLAHD) initiative.23 Recognized by the White House as a national model in 2021, CCLAHD is managed by grant experts at the Chicago Bar Foundation. CCLAHD’s collective programs helped more than 20,000 litigants in its first full year and helped connect many thousands more to rental assistance and other resources.
- Likewise, Cobb County, Georgia used ERA funds to launch an Emergency Rental Assistance Program by expanding court staff and working with external rental assistance organizations, legal aid programs, mediators, and other service providers to ensure landlords and tenants get information and help securing available aid and avoid eviction whenever possible. Also spotlighted as a model by the White House, Chief Magistrate Judge Brendan J. Murphy presided over court-based elements of the ERA Program while maintaining continued communication among all stakeholders and the county’s grant administrator.24
- Another court partnership example comes from a mediation program in Missouri, funded by a Title IV-D access and visitation grant, a specific subset of Title IV-D funds. Awarded to an organization called M.A.R.C.H. Mediation, the collaboration helps to resolve parenting disputes outside of the courts. The local circuit courts direct parenting-dispute cases to M.A.R.C.H. to help reach a resolution in custody, access and visitation, and child support issues.25
D. Properly Staff Grants Management
It’s res ipsa that court budgets simply do not stretch far enough to fully meet their communities’ needs and that pennies, let alone dollars, do not fall from the sky. Keep in mind that accessing federal funds to support state courts takes time, staff, and resources. A final Tiny Case Study26 spotlights the need for dedicated court grant management staff to help obtain funding, ensure compliance, and expand court services. Three states at three different stages of development have staffed up to ensure they have staff dedicated to every part of every grant’s life cycle.
- When the pandemic closed the courthouse doors in New Hampshire, the courts had no grants manager to pursue CARES Act funding for the technology innovations they needed to ensure day-to-day operations. But Jackie Waters, e-Court program director, stepped up to learn the ropes—and they received $1.5M in Coronavirus Relief Funds. That success led to hiring the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s first-ever grants manager, Tanya Pittman.
- Utah was a little further along this road when in 2020 they hired Jordan Murray, grants coordinator, Utah Judicial Branch, Administrative Office of the Courts, to be Utah’s first-ever grants manager at the start of the pandemic.
- Much further down the grants management road, the Massachusetts Trial Court hired Jessica Fix in 2013. Thanks to multiple early successes, she now runs a grants department, with five full-time staff, who have helped secure more than $30M in new funds.
Finding and monitoring new funding streams is a heavy lift, but an imperative to update existing state court systems. Moreover, court administrators, judges, lawyers, and litigants will quickly realize that securing these federal funds is well worth that effort. Finally, expertise developed with each grant makes the following ones easier. Resources like the SJI Funding Toolkit and NCSC Tiny Case Studies are courts’ launch pad to provide all kinds of repairs to state court systems.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen A. Lash is policy consultant, Lash Consulting LLC, Washington, D.C.
- “How Pew Helps States Modernize Civil Courts: Collected Technical Assistance Resources Highlight Strategies to Boost Efficiency, Limit Taxpayer Burdens,” available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2023/01/11/how-pew-helps-states-modernize-civil-courts.
- The White House LAIR has been revived by the Biden administration, https://www.justice.gov/atj/legal-aid-interagency-roundtable. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association now hosts the Justice in Government Project Toolkit, including information about federal pass-through funds and a collection of research briefs that summarize in bite-size pieces the findings of researchers relevant to the importance of civil legal help to solving people’s problems, available at https://legalaidresources.org/toolkit/.
- Karen A. Lash, “Executive Branch Support for Civil Legal Aid,” Daedalus 148 (2019): 160-71, available at https://direct.mit.edu/daed/article/148/1/160/27280/Executive-Branch-Support-for-Civil-Legal-Aid.
- “Utah Is Using Data to Drive Debt Litigation Reform: New Research Shows How State Is Analyzing Policies and Practices, Examining Outcomes,” April 20, 2022, available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2022/04/20/utah-is-using-data-to-drive-debt-litigation-reform.
- “State Leaders Seek More Equitable Processes for Handling Debt Collection Cases: 3 Key Takeaways Emerge from Discussion Among Great Lakes Legal Aid, Foundation, and Government Policy Leaders,” February 17, 2023, at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2023/02/16/state-leaders-seek-more-equitable-processes-for-handling-debt-collection-cases.
- “Utah Bar Foundation Report on Debt Collection and Utah’s Courts,” April 2022, p. 38, available at https://www.utahbarfoundation.org/static/media/UBF2022.912d30c10e5681bf5f8c.pdf.
- “2017-18 JusticeCorps Program Evaluation Final Summary Report,” September 2018, available at https://www.srln.org/system/files/attachments/California%20-%20JusticeCorps%20-%20September%202018%20Program%20Evaluation%20Final%20Report.pdf.
- See NYC Office of Civil Justice, “2019 Annual Report,” 2020, available at https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/hra/downloads/pdf/services/civiljustice/OCJ_Annual_Report_2019.pdf (eviction); Luke Grundman and Maria Kruger, “Legal Representation in Evictions—Comparative Study,” 2018, available at https://www.minnpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/2018-Eviction-Representation-Results-Study-with-logos.pdf (eviction); D. James Greiner, Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak, and Jonathan Hennessy, “The Limits of Unbundled Legal Assistance: A Randomized Study in a Massachusetts District Court and Prospects for the Future,” Harvard Law Review 128 (2013): 901, available at https://harvardlawreview.org/print/vol-126/the-limits-of-unbundled-legal-assistance-a-randomized-study-in-a-massachusetts-district-court-and-prospects-for-the-future/.
- Kelly L. Jarvis et al., “Evaluation of the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB590) Housing Pilot Projects,” submitted to the Judicial Council of California, July 2017, available at https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/Shriver-Housing-2017.pdf.
- Jennifer S. Rosenberg and Denise A. Grab, “Supporting Survivors: The Economic Benefits of Providing Civil Legal Assistance to Survivors of Domestic Violence,” Institute for Policy Integrity, New York University School of Law, July 2015, available at https://policyintegrity.org/documents/SupportingSurvivors.pdf; Liz Elwart et al., “Access to Restraining Orders for Low-Income Victims of Domestic Violence: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Domestic Abuse Grant Program,” report prepared by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association for the State Bar of Wisconsin, December 2006, available at https://legalaidresearch.org/2020/01/28/increasing-access-to-restraining-orders-for-low-income-victims-of-domestic-violence-a-cost-benefit-analysis-of-the-proposed-domestic-abuse-grant-program/; Mary A. Kernic, “Final Report of the Impact of Legal Representation on Child Custody Decisions Among Families with a History of Intimate Partner Violence Study,” 2015, available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/248886.pdf; Ellen Degnan, Thomas Ferriss, James Greiner, and Roseanna Sommers, “Trapped in Marriage,” October 23, 2018, available at SSRN, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3277900; Carolyn Copps Hartley and Lynette M. Renner, “Economic Self-Sufficiency Among Women Who Experienced Intimate Partner Violence and Received Civil Legal Services,” Journal of Family Violence 33 (2018): 435-45, available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10896-018-9977-0; Lynette M. Renner and Carolyn Copps Hartley, “Psychological Well-Being Among Women Who Experienced Intimate Partner Violence and Received Civil Legal Services,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 36 (2018), available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0886260518777552?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed.
- “Welcome to the Funding Toolkit for State Courts and Justice System Partners,” available at https://fundingtoolkit.sji.gov.
- Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Program, State Justice Institute Funding Toolkit, available at https://fundingtoolkit.sji.gov/funding/juvenile-drug-treatment-court-program-2/.
- Adult Treatment Court Discretionary Grant Program, State Justice Institute Funding Toolkit, available at https://fundingtoolkit.sji.gov/funding/adult-treatment-court-discretionary-grant-program/.
- Comprehensive Opioid, Stimulant, and Substance Use Site-based Program (COSSUP), State Justice Institute Funding Toolkit, available at https://fundingtoolkit.sji.gov/funding/comprehensive-opioid-stimulant-and-substance-use-site-based-program-cossup/.
- “What Is a Block Grant?” Community Blog, Grants.gov, Jan. 20, 2020, available at https://grantsgovprod.wordpress.com/?s=block.
- “What Is a Formula Grant?” Community Blog, Grants.gov, July 13, 2016, available at https://grantsgovprod.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/what-is-a-formula-grant/.
- National Center for State Courts,” Funding,” available at https://www.ncsc.org/consulting-and-research/areas-of-expertise/access-to-justice/funding. For additional information about each pass-through funding source highlighted, go to the SJI Funding Toolkit, available at https://fundingtoolkit.sji.gov.
- “AmeriCorps Court-Based Navigator Programs: Federally-funded Programs that Support State Court Partnerships and Increase Access to Justice for Self-Represented Litigants,” September 28, 2020, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/72555/justicecorps-jgp-case-study-9-28-20.pdf.
- “STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant: Federally-funded Technology Innovations in State Courts to Increase Access to Justice Among Victims of Domestic Violence,” October 30, 2020, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/72556/jgp-stop-case-study.pdf.
- “Title IV-D Supports Online Dispute Resolution in Ottawa County, Michigan,” June 22, 2021, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0022/72553/title-iv-d-and-odr-case-study.pdf. See also, “How to Evaluate the Litigant Experience as Courts Turn to Online Dispute Resolution,” January 25, 2021, available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2021/01/25/how-to-evaluate-the-litigant-experience-as-courts-turn-to-online-dispute-resolution.
- “CARES Act Funds Support Digital Access to Courts During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” November 29, 2020, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/72551/cares-act-case-study-11-29-20-2.pdf.
- “CDBG Supports Legal Help for Low-income Tenants in Philadelphia,” January 14, 2021, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/72552/cdbg-case-study-1-14-21.pdf.
- “Pandemic Recovery Funds Support Court-Based Eviction Prevention Programs in Cook County, Illinois,” June 2, 2022, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0029/77465/Eviction-prevention-in-IL_6.2.22.pdf.
- “Pandemic Recovery Funds Support Eviction Prevention in Cobb County, Georgia,” March 8, 2022, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0031/77467/Cobb-County-GA-Eviction-Prevention-4.18.22.pdf.
- “Study Examines Effectiveness of Virtual Mediation in Parenting Disputes: Federal Access and Visitation Grant Supports Mediation In Missouri,” June 22, 2021, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0023/72554/title-iv-d-and-march-case-study.pdf. This case study also summarizes the findings of research conducted during the COVID-19 shutdown comparing the effectiveness of virtual, phone, and in-person mediation. Parents and mediators chose formats based on preference and case characteristics, and each equally improved parents’ ability to communicate post-mediation. While not generalizable given the small sample size, these and additional findings can help inform parent mediators and the broader parenting court ecosystem of the values and limitations of virtual, phone, and in-person mediation formats.
- “Dedicated Grant Management Staff Help Courts Obtain Funding, Ensure Compliance, and Expand Court Services,” September 6, 2022, available at https://www.ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0024/82680/Grant-management-final.pdf.