April 8, 2002
In 1976, the Governors Committee on Judicial Need began its report with the ominous observation that: "The administration of justice in Massachusetts stands on the brink of disaster."
Today, more than 25 years later, the Courts of the Commonwealth are again facing a disaster. The state legislature is on the brink of a budget process that seems destined to slash some $50 million from the Courts. This cut comes on top of $40 million already eliminated from the FY 2002 budget. The Courts today are staggering under a significant loss of personnel and resources that seriously risk denying judicial access to all citizens of the state.
The Massachusetts Bar Association clearly recognizes the harsh realities confronting the Commonwealth -- fiscal resources are strained to breaking, with no clear prospect of recovery. In our Courts, staff and resources already have been cut to the bone – and further painful cutbacks are waiting in the wings.
To put the current crisis in perspective, we note the following:
The FY 2002 budget for the Courts was $40 million short of the Courts' own spending needs plan. The Courts responded by cutting the workforce by more than 800 people -- an 11 percent reduction in trial court personnel that included 349 who opted to take early retirement, 266 who left through attrition and 184 who were laid off effective March 1. A salary-deferral program was implemented to save nearly $10 million, and Superior Court clerks were reassigned to a four-day workweek. In addition, the Courts cut an additional $15 million by eliminating discretionary spending, reducing utilities and energy costs, and postponing purchases or leasing of much-needed equipment.
The next wave of the Courts crisis will come on April 15, when funds run out in the Non-Employee Services account that provides for interpreters, court reporters, guardians ad litem, investigators, monitors, transcribers, psychologists and expert witnesses. The expected shortfall will be approximately $1.7 million, plus $870,000 needed to pay for a deficiency carried over from FY 2001.
And then in June, the funds to pay judicial salaries will fall short by $3.1 million.
It is estimated that if the Court budget is reduced by another $50 million, as is expected, 930 more Court personnel will be laid off in July. These dramatic cuts, on top of what has already come, will mean even fewer people to handle vital Court services, further backlogs in case processing, reductions or elimination of critical Court programs, and the potential shutdown of Court sessions.
It is imperative that the Commonwealth's Courts be adequately funded. Without proper funding, the administration of justice in Massachusetts will grind to a halt and our Courts will become inaccessible to much of the state's population.
We recognize the seriousness of the budget crisis that is affecting many segments of the Commonwealth. As lawyers, it is our responsibility to speak out on behalf of all citizens who might need the services of the Courts. This crisis cuts across all strata of the state – wealthy and poor, connected and disenfranchised, native and immigrant. Without a fully functioning Court, there can be no access to justice for our citizens.
The Massachusetts Bar Association today urges the Legislature and Governor to provide necessary funds to enable the Massachusetts Court system to meet the needs of the public and ensure their access to justice. The Massachusetts Bar Association remains steadfast in it commitments to ensure access to justice for all citizens in the Commonwealth and to work with other concerned organizations to provide a voice for the judicial system's budgetary needs.
Carol A.G. DiMento
President, Massachusetts Bar Association