Chief Justice Paula Carey addressed the House of Delegates at
our kick-off meeting for the 2011-12 association year at
UMass-Dartmouth with this thoughtful yet chilling message: "We can
no longer deliver meaningful justice in our courts and cannot
sustain any cuts. … [W]e have hit the wall. … [W]ith our
current budget, we will be in a constitutional crisis."
The Probate and Family Court, along with the District Court, the
Boston Municipal Court and the Housing Court are the epicenters of
citizen interaction with the justice system, and consequently, the
judicial "fault lines" for sudden and explosive conduct.
A couple of recent incidents from Connecticut and New Hampshire
bring home the risks that we confront every day in these
Richard Shenkman, a 62-year-old advertising executive, was enraged
over a Connecticut family court's decree awarding his former
spouse, Nancy Tyler, $100,000 in attorney's fees or (if not paid)
title and possession of their South Windsor home. Tyler was also
awarded title to their beach house in the Niantic section of East
Unhappy with the results from court proceedings, Shenkman took
matters into his own, deranged hands. He burned down the beach
house and then kidnapped Tyler, brought her to the South Windsor
home, rigged the structure with propane-fueled explosive devices,
and demanded that police send a Catholic priest to deliver Tyler
last rites. Tyler somehow escaped unharmed, so Shenkman burned this
house down too. His criminal defense lawyer is said to plan a
Thomas Ball was a divorced dad from Holden, Mass., who was an
active member of the so-called fathers' rights movement. He viewed
the courts as corrupt, ruthless and hopelessly biased in favor of
mothers. He reportedly wrote that men were no longer "fathers," but
only "piggy banks." After 10 years of unsuccessful litigation over
custody, visitation rights and child support, Ball doused himself
with gasoline and ignited himself at the main door of the county
courthouse in Keene, N.H.
MBA Past President Denise Squillante is a renowned family law
practitioner in Bristol County. Few individuals better appreciate
the risks and hazards that are ever present in the corridors and
steps of the Probate and Family Courts than Denise. She raised the
clarion call about these risks many times, pointing to the toxic
mix of emotionally charged, deeply personal disputes and the vast
numbers of self-represented litigants.1 President Squillante in her
colorful and vibrant New England accent predicted that litigants
"will take it to the streets."
Chief Justice Carey told the House of Delegates that "judges
[consistently take] the bench … with no court officer."
We need to ask what will happen to judges or to other persons
present in the courts when an angry Richard Shenkman or Thomas Ball
show up ready to create mayhem.
Judges could just refuse to take the bench without a court
officer. But who among the 100 or more people who took time off
from work or arranged for daycare and who waited long hours to have
their important matters addressed might just be a Shenkman or Hall?
Violence can and does take place in corridors and doorways in the
While many judges ignore the safety risk in order to carry out
their duties, many more are leaving the bench due to job-related
stress and poor working conditions.
Chief Justice Carey reported that "the Probate and Family Court
expects to lose 20 percent of its bench by Dec. 31, 2011. Only two
of these judges were at the mandatory retirement age of 70."
Judges in the Probate and Family Court are required by statute or
decisional law to make findings in at least 73 types of cases.
Child custody cases, unavoidably wrought with emotion, put
vulnerable children in the crosshairs when budget shortfalls result
in long delays as decisions wait to be typed. As Chief Justice
Carey noted, "mistakes are can be multigenerational."
The Massachusetts Constitution allocates duties and
responsibilities to the judiciary that cannot be neutered by the
legislative and executive branches. When the courts "hit the wall"
and cannot do their jobs, the failure to properly fund the
judiciary violates the constitutional authority and prerogative of
the judiciary. The constitutional crisis is at hand.