Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice
Margaret H. Marshall delivered a dire warning in her 10th Annual
Address to the Legal Community: "Justice is in jeopardy in
Massachusetts," she told nearly 200 people at the John Adams
Courthouse on Oct. 21.
Marshall, who was recognized with
the Massachusetts Bar Association's Chief Justice Edward F.
Hennessey Award on her tenth anniversary as chief justice,
used the annual speech to convey how serious the situation is,
rather than chart how much progress the courts have made, as she
has done in past years.
"I wish that I could dwell on the successful, sweeping
managerial reforms that have made - and continue to make - the
judicial branch of this commonwealth admired across the country.
But this year is no time for celebration, no time for
congratulations. Why? In a word, crisis - a deepening crisis - with
funding cuts that are putting great strain on our courts."
Marshall tallied the costs in both
personnel and courthouse facilities.
"By year's end, Trial Court staffing
levels will be slightly more than two-thirds of the appropriate -
the necessary - levels identified for us by an independent,
objective model developed by the National Center for State Courts,
the nation's expert on that subject," she said.
Closure of court sessions
Several district courts have been
relocated, she noted, and leases for rented spaces have been
"The closure of court sessions, the
closure of more courthouses, is inevitable - inevitable - if the
already decimated Trial Court budget is further reduced," she
Marshall expressed frustration that
the courts have been hit harder than other departments of state
"The judicial branch is being asked
to absorb a disproportionate amount of the necessary reductions in
government spending," she said, noting that the judicial branch
accounts for just 2.1 percent of state spending. The court
department has reduced its workforce 7.5 percent, she said, greater
than other departments.
"The Massachusetts Constitution
establishes three co-equal branches of government. The
disproportionate share of budget reductions falling to the
judiciary comes at the worst possible time for the people of
Massachusetts," Marshall said, noting increases in domestic
violence and housing cases, among others.
"Are we now prepared to tell a woman
who seeks a protective order for herself and her children to come
back next week because budget cuts have forced the court to close
for a day or more?" she said.
One year ago, when Gov. Deval Patrick asked state government
departments to reduce their spending in light of the national
recession, the courts voluntarily cut operating costs from $605
million to $583 million. This year's budget, which began July 1,
was further reduced to $554 million, and now state leaders are
saying the situation is even worse than they'd anticipated, and
more cuts will be needed.
"The Bleeding has just begun"
"Here is the truly dismal news: the
bleeding has just begun," Marshall told the audience. "The
budgetary forecasts for fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2012
presage more fiscal pain. Who will bear the brunt of this pain?
Everyone who seeks access to our courts."
Marshall called on the judiciary,
Legislature and governor's office to work together to strategize
what types of changes in court operations and locations will be
acceptable if further cuts are needed. She raised the possibility
that more aggressive courthouse consolidation and the transfer of
cases from judges to administrators might be necessary
"I do not point fingers," she said.
"As chief justice, however, as one who has labored long and hard to
bring lasting reform to the administration of justice in the
commonwealth, and to broaden access to justice, as one who is
passionate about the importance of courts to a free people, I
cannot, I shall not, ignore that our courts are at a moment of
She concluded by urging lawyers and
court staff to speak up and contact the Legislature and governor.
Though the courts serve an average of 42,000 people every day,
Marshall said she has heard that the courts do not have a clear
"Let them know, in no uncertain terms, that there is a
constituency for the delivery of justice, that there is a
constituency for maintaining our democracy," Marshall said. "Never
has your individual voice been more needed.