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The power of state trial courts is tremendous. Charged with resolving 95% of the nation’s legal cases, state trial judges decide “the law” for thousands of litigants and criminal defendants every year, not to mention countless others impacted or bound by their decisions. Yet for decades state judges and academics have warned of a “crisis in the courts.” Many state courts today remain chronically underfunded, although they rarely ever compose more than 1% of the average state budget (and never more than 2%). State chief judges have decried the waning quality of state courts, arguing that inadequate funding has led to undue court delays, case backlogs, and poorly decided cases, placing state courts “at the tipping point of dysfunction.”
Yet despite nearly four decades of court funding litigation and legislative debate, state court reform efforts remain limited in many states by one sobering and largely neglected fact: local government is in the driver’s seat on funding state trial courts and determining the quality of justice. When court funding is decentralized, and local communities must pay for their own court services, the property and income wealth of the community determines the quality of justice in that particular area. Unsurprisingly, decentralized state court funding systems have tended to benefit only courts in affluent communities, where the highest tax revenue and per capita income base predominate, while courts in poorer locales are often left lacking sufficient funding and resources to operate efficiently. This fact casts a long shadow over the ideal of equal opportunity to justice. This Article refracts the problem of local state court funding through one vitally important, but until now unstudied, judicial resource: state trial court clerkships.
Judson R. Peverall *
∗ Associate Attorney, ThorsenAllen LLP, Richmond, Virginia. J.D., University of Richmond School of Law; A.B., The College of William and Mary. As a former law clerk to the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit of Virginia, the author dedicates this Article to the Honorable Charles S. Sharp, Michael E. Levy, and Victoria A.B. Willis, the judges who helped him begin his legal career and understand the value of the clerkship to the judiciary—in Virginia and beyond.