Lawyers Journal

Courts survive first round on Beacon Hill

House vote follows MBA's Lobby Day effort
On the heels of the MBA's successful Lobby Day for Court Funding on May 7, the Massachusetts House voted on May 15 to restore much of the state's court budget for FY03. The House's proposed budget called for cutting the court's $500 million request by nearly $60 million.

In addition, several proposals to significantly change court administration rules were shelved, with the issue of court management moved to a legislative study commission.

"We are very pleased with the outcome of the House action on funding for the state's courts," said MBA General Counsel Martin Healy. "It is notable that the legislators heard the call of legal professionals across the Commonwealth to restore or in large part preserve the needed funds to operate the Trial Court and the Supreme Judicial Court, so the public's access to justice is neither denied nor delayed by the threat of closed courts, dismissed staff or diminished resources."

In addition to limiting its cuts to roughly one percent for the Trial Courts and three percent for the Supreme Judicial Court, Healy said the House restored funds for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and reinstated the hourly pay level for bar advocates, who are the only sources of legal representation for many of the state's most needy citizens.

While specifics on the entire House budget were still being analyzed as Lawyers Journal was going to press, some information was available. Among these are:

•  An $800,000 shortfall in the SJC administrative account. As this account funds staffing and other resources, the possibility remains of significant layoffs in FY03.

•  The Alternative Dispute Resolution program will
be eliminated, as originally stated in the House proposal.

•  The SJC's information-technology budget request was maintained at approximately $422,000.

•  The proposal to reduce the hourly pay rate of lawyers working through the Committee on Public Counsel Services (CPCS) was dropped.

•  $329,000 was added to the budget for the Mass. Legal Assistance Corporation, which helps restore a portion of the cuts to MLAC's FY02 allocation.

•  Funds for the Family Court Clinics were restored.

•  Some funding for the court day-care program was restored. This program had been slated for elimination.

Of equal importance to the court budget was the fate of several amendments that aimed to drastically change the rules of court administration. These measures, including the so-called "Scaccia amendment" to remove all hiring and administrative powers from the judges, have been shelved. The issue of court management will now be taken up in a study commission proposed by House Speaker Thomas Finneran. The MBA anticipates being actively involved in that process.

"As the largest representative of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals across the Commonwealth, the MBA looks forward to working with the Speaker's proposed study commission on the courts," said MBA President-Elect Joseph P.J. Vrabel. "We believe this, rather than in the heat of the budget battle, is a more appropriate forum for the legislature to consider such significant and far-reaching issues."

Having now passed through the House, the court budget moves on to the Senate, which is expected to prepare its own version by mid to late June. A joint House-Senate conference committee will work out a compromise budget and a final vote of the entire legislature is expected prior to the state's July 1 fiscal year deadline.

The House vote follows the MBA's successful Lobby Day for Court Funding on May 7, during which more than 100 lawyers, judges and members of legal organizations from across Massachusetts rallied at the State House to seek support for increased funding for the state's court system.

Sponsored by the MBA, the event featured speeches by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Barbara A. Dortch-Okara, Boston Bar Association President Michael Keating, and Rep. David Donnelly and Sen. Robert Creedon, chairmen of the Joint Judiciary Committee.

Among the organizations that took part in Lobby Day were the Massachusetts Judges Conference, the Women's Bar Association, the Massachusetts Conveyancers Association, the Boston Bar Association, county bar associations, law librarians, and unions representing court clerical and managerial personnel.

The Lobby Day activities were followed by a letter and e-mail campaign to legislators by members of the MBA.

Rallying the participants at Lobby Day, MBA President Carol A.G. DiMento said, "At the end of the day, it really comes down to the effect these cuts will have on the public, on their access to fair and timely justice. The impact of these cuts will be immense; they will affect us all.

"By eliminating programs, slashing funds and consolidating departmental categories, the House would effectively deny access to justice for many of our citizens - especially the less fortunate - and would delay justice for all."

Noting that 800 court jobs have been eliminated during FY02 and that as many as 1,000 more were projected under the original House budget plan, DiMento said, "Our law practices are being hurt because courts are closing sessions, clients will have to pay for court reporters themselves if they want a trial, and decisions are taking longer than usual to come down.

"And court-appointed attorneys are facing a pay cut, from their already-low rates - and that will affect our indigent citizens, for whom these lawyers are their only advocates.

"Ultimately," DiMento said, "it's the public that is being hurt."

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