published Friday, May 21st, 2010

The price of judicial activism

Tennesseans may remember Gov. Phil Bredesen’s efforts to reform the horribly costly TennCare program. He had some success, but not before facing many court challenges to the sensible things he was trying to do.

Other states and cities have not been so fortunate.

In Los Angeles, lack of money forced the school district to lay off some teachers at three middle schools. But “civil rights activists” got a Superior Court judge to forbid the district to carry out the layoffs, however dire its situation. Of course, the judge provided no money to pay the teachers’ salaries.

In New York state, legislators enacted a law requiring a one-day furlough of 100,000 state employees, to try to close a $9 billion budget gap. But unions representing the government workers got a federal judge to block the furlough, even though New York state will run out of money by the end of May. The judge also forbade the state even to seek any additional furloughs for the time being. Again, the judge provided no money to pay the employees whom he forbade New York to furlough.

But the ugliest case of judicial activism causing devastation to a state budget is in California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big spender. Yet even he recognizes that California’s $20 billion budget deficit is dangerous. So he and California legislators sought to rein in out-of-control spending by enacting $2.4 billion in cuts to welfare programs in the state. But time and again, federal courts rejected those efforts.

The courts are “going absolutely crazy” Gov. Schwarzenegger told the Los Angeles Times. Now, since he cannot reduce spending on social programs to make them more efficient, he is reluctantly proposing doing the one thing the courts cannot prevent: He wants to end some programs altogether. He has recommended ending California’s welfare-to-work program, for instance. That would cut aid to families in which parents are trying to transition into the work force. Nearly $800 million would also be cut from programs that provide home care to the elderly, sick and disabled.

California and 22 other states are so desperate that they have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and free them from outrageous court decrees so they can do what they must to rescue their finances. It is anyone’s guess how that will play out, but unaccountable courts are making it far harder than necessary for states to stave off disaster.

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