Lawyers Journal

On the stump

A new courthouse, an old one, and familiar problems
As many of you know, there is a new courthouse on Federal Street in Salem, the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. I was honored to participate in the formal dedication as your president-elect. For those of you who have not had a chance to see this new courthouse, I can assure you it is a terrific facility, with its appearance befitting a first-rate court system. In my remarks at the dedication, I invoked a bit of Essex County legal history, as did Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy, who took us all back in time to the Salem "witch trials."

Unlike Justice Cordy, I traveled back only a few hundred years or so, to the inception of the Newburyport Superior Courthouse, which continues in operation today as the oldest operational superior courthouse in the nation. In the early days of that courthouse, Daniel Webster tried cases there, and much of the courthouse is essentially as it was during Webster's time. I am pleased to have tried cases there, giving me that common experience with Webster, hastening to add that I am hardly in Webster's league.

The Newburyport Superior Courthouse almost became only a memory back in 1976 when members of the Weather Underground bombed the building. For those of you unfamiliar with the Weather Underground, that was a radical political group bent on changing, including by violent means, our system of government. Regardless of the Weather Underground's motives at its inception, the group morphed into an ineffectual ragtag outfit that left in its wake destruction of property and persons.

(In 1970 when I was working for Life magazine in New York City, I was planning on attending an Amherst College alumni function in New York, to be held at the Greenwich Village home of an older, rather prosperous alumnus. The event was cancelled because the home was literally blown up - inadvertently - by members of the Weather Underground who were making bombs in the basement of that house. Their less-than-stellar bomb-making skills killed three of them, while two escaped.)

The Newburyport Superior Courthouse survived, despite sustaining considerable damage. The Weather Underground did not choose lightly that target. As misguided as the bombing was, that courthouse was chosen to make a purposeful political statement.

I mention this history because our courthouses are highly visible symbols of what makes us great as a nation of laws. We resolve our disputes largely through our courts. As obvious and taken for granted as this may be for us as lawyers, it is not the case in much of the world. We need only look at the various armed struggles in many parts of the globe to understand that in many places, violence is the means for resolving disputes.

Our system of justice, our courts where the system operates, our judges and court employees are all essential to the
maintenance of our very way of life. Too often in the hurly-burly of our daily lives, even we lawyers forget that.

Our courthouses are, after all, just buildings. Without judges and support personnel in adequate numbers, we cannot have a meaningfully functioning system of criminal and civil justice. For many years, we have seen a hiring freeze in our courts. As I observed at the Salem courthouse dedication, look at the clerks' offices and other office spaces in that new courthouse during the work day. You will see many, if not mostly, empty desks and work spaces - stark testimony to the absence of personnel.

This is not acceptable. While we can debate reasonably what the right staffing patterns and staffing allocations should be in particular courts, the fact remains that overall, we have a shortage of court personnel. This is a problem for all citizens, not just lawyers and their particular clients.

It is up to all of us, therefore, to advocate responsibly, wherever and whenever we can, for adequate court funding. Without a properly funded court system, we face the very real risk of losing much of what we take for granted in a civilized society. This is not alarmism. This is an elephant standing in the corner of the courtroom. The longer we allow that elephant to stand there, the messier and harder to clean up that courtroom is likely to become.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association