Budget cuts are slowing down U.S. courts

State legislatures looking to cut budgets are increasingly targeting the courts, which have been forced to lay off thousands of staff workers.

CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports that with state courts handling more than 40 million cases a year, the result is often gridlock.

Engineer Doug Reed wants to start his own management consulting business, and, uncertain of his cash flow, he filed to lower alimony payments to his ex-wife. That was in July, 2010.

"I was hoping to have it finalized by the fall," Reed said.

Now 14 months and counting, his case is languishing in the overburdened Massachusetts court system. The earliest Reed expects to be seen now is Dec. 5.

Since 2009, 14 percent of the trial court budget has been cut in the state, resulting in the loss of almost 800 employees. While criminal cases still have priority, the same does not hold true for everyday civil matters like business disputes, divorces and custody cases.

At least 34 states cut their court budgets this year. New York laid off 367 workers in may. Alabama will cut its budget by 10 percent. In California, the Superior Court of san francisco will let go 15 percent of its staff and shutter 14 courtrooms.

With fewer staffers, judges can barely keep up.

"They're doing work through lunch. They're coming in early. They're staying late. They're using vacation days to write cases," said Mary Manzi, a recently retired probate and family court judge.

In her home state of Massachusetts, 42,000 people use the trial courts everyday.

"I've had legislators say to me that not that many people percentage wise use the courts, and that's some sort of justification. But it's almost like saying not everyone uses an emergency room every year. You need to have the emergency room there, ya know?" Manzi said.

What frustrates people like Doug Reed most is that, instead of focusing on his fledgling business, he's unable to move forward until a judge hears his case.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.