In 48 states, the chief justice of the state supreme court is the “administrative head” of or holds “administrative power” over the state’s judicial branch.1 As such, many chiefs deliver annual “state of the judiciary” addresses, similar to speeches delivered by governors. Unlike gubernatorial speeches, which are almost always delivered to joint sessions of the state’s legislature, a chief justice’s address may be delivered at a state bar meeting, in a legislative hearing, or even in a courtroom before select members of the bench, the bar, and the other two branches of government. 2
Regardless of the methods and means of delivery, state of the judiciary speeches have a common purpose: They report the chief justice’s assessment of the current condition of the state’s judiciary, propose a vision for the future, and, more often than not, ask for assistance from colleagues in the legislative and executive branches and beyond.
Our review of the 22 speeches delivered as of August 1, 2023,3 found several recurring themes across the states:
Mental Health: Sixteen chief justices mentioned or focused portions of their speech on the impact of mental health illnesses in the courts. Many chiefs noted that mental health services in their states are inadequate and decried the large numbers of people suffering from untreated mental illnesses. For example, Indiana saw 19,000 cases involving mental health illnesses, a record for that state.4 Several chief justices also noted the relationship between mental health and co-occurring substance use disorders.
Some chiefs proposed solutions, such as the creation or expansion of treatment courts and collaboration with agencies like law enforcement, prosecutors’ offices, and social welfare services to better address the mental health crisis in jails. Several chief justices also highlighted judiciary-based commissions that were created in the past several years to address these issues, such as the New Mexico Commission on Mental Health and Competency5 and the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health.6 Both commissions were created by their respective states’ courts of last resort.
Access to Justice: Sixteen chief justices also discussed the need to expand access to justice, particularly by providing resources to help self-represented litigants adequately navigate the judicial system themselves. Some justices discussed possible alternative approaches, such as court navigators and the creation of nonlawyer legal service providers.
Another common theme was the need to boost the number of lawyers to broaden access to representation. Georgia’s Chief Justice Michael P. Boggs noted that, in his state, 67 out of 159 counties have ten or fewer licensed practicing attorneys. Seven counties have no licensed attorneys at all.7 Similarly, the chief justices of six other states (Kansas,8 Maine,9 Minnesota,10 New Mexico,11 New York,12 and South Dakota13) specifically noted or discussed in their addresses the lack of access to attorneys in rural areas.
Some chiefs see an opportunity to improve access to justice by expanding remote access. California Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero said, in her state, improved access means “remote access to services; remote access to case information; and remote access to hearings and proceedings.”14 Idaho Chief Justice G. Richard Bevan noted that, in the past, access to justice meant “ADA accommodations, language services, and onsite assistance for people representing themselves in court. Technology now offers more ways to make court access easier and less disruptive — and the people of Idaho expect us to use it.”15
Salaries/compensation: Fourteen chief justices asked their legislatures to consider increases in pay for judges, judicial staff, or personnel-related resources. A common theme here was that courts are struggling to retain judges and staff as they leave for the private sector or even other government branches or agencies.
Another concern was recruitment: Several chief justices noted significant numbers of open positions for nonjudicial staff and a decline in the number of names being submitted for consideration by judicial nominating commissions. In Nebraska, up to 12 percent of court employee positions were vacant in 2022.16 The average number of applicants for district court judicial positions in Idaho is just five.17
In Utah, the number of people applying for vacant judicial positions is half what it used to be. Utah Chief Justice Matthew Durrant noted, “[W]e’re only going to get people who are willing to make a sacrifice, but there’s a limit to that willingness, and it’s just a simple matter of economics that the more we can pay, the more applicants we can attract and the more judges we can retain.”18
Several chief justices enumerated other negative effects of salary and compensation concerns. As New York’s Acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro noted, “Staffing shortages slow down our dockets and burden our already-strained workforce.”19
Backlogs and delays: Finally, ten chief justices discussed continued COVID-related backlogs and reported mixed progress. Several states, such as Alaska, are working to reduce the backlog but at a “much slower” pace than the courts would like.20 Staffing is a primary challenge, both within and outside the judicial branch, especially in criminal cases. Other states were able to report successful efforts to reduce case backlogs, but it will take time, potentially years, to return to a pre-COVID pace for case processing.21
With a few state chief justices due to deliver state of the judiciary addresses later in 2023,22 several of these themes seem likely to be further examined.
|Tips for Addressing Court Staff Shortages
Multiple state chief justices noted challenges around staff recruitment and retention in state of the judiciary addresses this year. Fellows of the National Center for State Courts Institute for Court Management studied these challenges and offered several recommendations for best practices for hiring and retaining employees.
Shortages are exacerbated in part by baby boomers retiring from decades of service in court administration, by high turnover in entry-level positions, and by fewer applicants in the hiring pool. As courts address shortages, the institute recommends developing succession plans to encourage and promote current employees looking for career advancement. Implementing regular employee evaluations to gauge career interests and solicit feedback on career growth can help with succession planning. The judiciary of Guam uses a talent management program to outline separate leadership tracks that employees can take. Other organizations use a nine-box talent grid template, which measures employee performance against career advancement potential.
The institute fellows also suggested ways courts can better recruit younger employees:
William Raftery is a senior knowledge management analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va., and the editor of Gavel to Gavel, a weekly review of legislation in all 50 states affecting the courts at www.ncsc.org/gaveltogavel.
Alyssa Nekritz is a former intern for the National Center for State Courts’ Institute for Knowledge Management, where she wrote a series of “Trending Topics” articles on state of judiciary addresses.