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By C. Dale McClain, President, Pennsylvania Bar Association

The budgets of 31 states are in crisis mode, a result of the nation's economy draining resources and shrinking state revenues. Responsible government leaders everywhere are searching for ways to preserve services to the public and avoid measures that will increase the strain on family budgets.

One key strategy is to leverage the resources and expert knowledge that reside across state government branches and agencies with a joint goal of fiscal responsibility.

Some of Pennsylvania's leaders have just returned from a national summit to assist and encourage that effort, with the more specific goal of protecting state justice systems and preserving their ability to meet our citizens' justice needs.

The justice system is more than just courts. In its broadest sense, it encompasses police and detention facilities, and executive branch agencies that enforce the laws and deal with such specialized areas as worker compensation claims. It includes court-related social services, such as domestic violence service centers, drug rehabilitation programs and child welfare agencies. It also contemplates the legislature, which creates and refines the laws that courts are charged to apply. It is part of the grand scheme of our nation's founders, who envisioned three cooperative branches, working together to serve the public.

Thus, the summit title: "Justice Is the Business of Government: The Critical Role of Fair and Impartial State Courts." With legislators, judges and representatives of governors from 37 states and territories, we sat down to explore how we can work together even more effectively than we have in the past. Minimal state funds were spent; the American Bar Association and the National Conference of State Courts subsidized the summit to enable as many states as possible to send delegations.

An initial issue is how state justice systems are responding to the economy. We learned that in some states, criminal court services are being curtailed: funding for prosecutors and defenders has been cut. In others, courthouses are being closed partial days, or full days on varying schedules. In many states, court personnel, sometimes including judges, are taking unpaid furloughs, and courthouses are either closing, or rotating the furlough schedule to stay open while still saving on salaries. These actions clearly affect the ability to deliver justice, and new actions are needed to sustain access to justice.

But the need for cooperation in service of the public is not just an economic one. We recognize the benefits of working together for more effective government. This can entail relationship-building in such ways as legislators sitting in on court proceedings, or judges observing executive branch meetings, or agency administrators contributing language when bills are being drafted. These sorts of activities take place every day around the nation. Structuring these types of activities, making them more routine, might be one way to improve cooperation and mutual understanding. Regular meetings involving members of each branch of state government could be convened with the chair's gavel rotating among branch representatives.

Rest assured, cooperation and understanding will never undermine the performance of its mutually exclusive role by each branch. Judges can't write laws, neither can they enforce them. Legislators are not judges. Governors don't have the final say on whether laws comport with the Pennsylvania Constitution. We believe, however, that we can better serve the citizens, businesses and organizations of Pennsylvania by raising the level of respect and understanding we hold for each other. And that is what we intend to do.

C. Dale McClain is the president of the 29,000-member Pennsylvania Bar Association.