Are We Losing Trust in Courts?

il-admin Articles

Despite increasing population, civil court filings in Colorado’s district courts dramatically drop. Is it costing taxpayers millions?

The Ralph L. Carr Justice Center in downtown Denver. Lower revenue from court filings means more taxpayer dollars must be used to pay for the center.

Colorado is one of the ten fastest-growing states in the country according to U.S. Census estimates. But the civil caseload in Colorado’s district courts is not growing to match the population increase. In fact, the civil caseload continues to decrease.

According to the 2017 Colorado Judicial Branch Annual Report, the total number of civil cases filed statewide in district courts for fiscal year 2017 is 80,632. Comparing that with 2012, when 169,055 civil cases were filed, shows a 52.3% decrease.

During that same time period, Colorado’s population grew from 5,191,731 to 5,658,546 – an almost 9% increase.

What’s up?

According to a 2015 report from the National Center on State Courts, there is a nationwide decrease in tort (motor vehicle, medical malpractice, faulty products and other civil wrongs) cases. A July 2017 Wall Street Journal article stated that tort reforms are responsible for the reduction in tort cases.

The National Center on State Courts found a marked increase nationwide, however, in contract disputes including debt collection, foreclosure and landlord-tenant disputes. Colorado’s foreclosure rate has fallen, however, reducing the number of those cases. A WalletHub study has determined that Colorado has the lowest foreclosure rate in the nation. Indeed, according to Colorado’s Dept. of Local Affairs, in 2012, there were 28,579 foreclosure filings compared to 1,756 in 2017.

So a drop in foreclosures and tort reform appear to be contributors to the reduction in civil court filings in Colorado. But the Wall Street Journal notes that “the falling number of tort filings, coupled with the broader decline in civil jury trials, has some judges concerned that Americans with garden-variety cases no longer see courts as an affordable way to seek redress for their injuries.”

As the article notes, the financial risks of taking a case to court have grown. “The risks become even greater if the judges on the bench cannot be counted on to follow the law,” says Chris Forsyth, executive director of The Judicial Integrity Project.

“The number of people who choose to resolve their disputes in Colorado’s state courts is decreasing even though our population is growing,” says Forsyth. “Many factors are at play, but one of those factors is a lack of trust in the system. The numbers show we have a problem.”

And the reduction in filings is purportedly costing taxpayers millions. In 2008, the state court administrator promised legislators that no taxpayer dollars would be used to pay for the Ralph L. Carr Justice Center in downtown Denver. The promise was based in part on anticipated revenue the judicial branch would generate from court filings.

It’s not working. Taxpayers have annually contributed millions to pay for the building, and are on track to pay more than $100 million by the time the building is scheduled to be paid for in 2046.