*This column originally appeared on GoLocalWorcester.com on Feb.
22, 2012, and is reprinted with the permission of the author and
I was driving up 290 the other night and, inbetween fighting to
merge onto 190, I look across the highway at this billboard. It's
from the Massachusetts Bar Association, and it asks a real simple
question: what if the courts were closed and you couldn't be
I'll be the first to tell you that I'm biased. I'm an attorney who
spends a majority of his week in court and, as far as I'm
concerned, budget cuts for the courts are bad for my business. At
the same time, court budget cuts are also bad for anyone trying to
live and make a living in Central Massachusetts.
Some of the things we take for granted here in the commonwealth
are courts that are open five days a week and court clerks offices
full of public servants working hard to make sure our cases go from
disputes between people to judicial decisions. The fact is,
according to a YouTube video published by the Massachusetts Bar
Association, since 2008 the Massachusetts Trial Courts have hired
zero new employees. As Trial Court employees retire, no one is
taking their place, judges are taking furlough days and a lack of
court officers is causing sessions to shut down.
The Worcester Probate and Family Court now has five judges
handling all cases having to do with custody, support, visitation,
estates and divorces in our county. As you can imagine, that's a
lot of work for such a limited number of people. And these are
The problem is you need more than judges to make our system of
justice work. We need court officers in the room to make sure
people aren't getting rowdy. We need clerks to file decisions and
mail them out so parents know what their visitation schedules are.
As things are, the registrar's office is short handed, and it's
only going to get worse if the hiring and pay freezes
What people might not know is that there are 11 district courts in
Worcester County. These courts handle small claims, criminal cases,
civil cases, as well as taking on some Housing Court sessions
during the week. Talk to any small business owner and they'll tell
you that while they might not want to go to litigation, they know
that if something goes bad, they can take it to court and solve the
Unfortunately, the courts in East Brookfield, Uxbridge and
Westborough have all been pushed so far they can't take new
business from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. certain days out of the week. If
the state doesn't hire the people our clerks offices need to do the
job, how do business owners get the solutions they need?
On top of probate and civil cases, there's a sticky part of our
justice system that just won't go away: due process rights for
criminal defendants. What do you do with people sitting in a jail
cell? You just can't tell them, "Sorry, no bail for you today. The
court is too busy."
A person has a right to be brought before a judge and have their
defense heard without question and without exception. It's not like
Thomas Jefferson was thinking you have a right to speedy trial,
unless the market is down and then maybe you get to see a judge.
Plus, don't forget that you have police officers working hard every
day to keep our streets safe. How discouraging is it going to be
for them when victims don't get justice and their efforts get
The federal and state constitutions name the judiciary as one of
the three branches of government. Having courts that work is not an
option, it's mandatory. All over the world, a basic measurement of
a nation is whether their citizens have access to a legitimate
system of justice.
What all this means is that upholding a high standard for our
courts is essential because residents need to know where to look
when they have a dispute. If the courts are closed, who is going to
be calling the shots on our streets? I'm not saying furlough days
for judges is two steps shy of anarchy, but I am saying our
communities rely on courthouses for more than just nice landscaping
A famous judge from Massachusetts once said that taxes are the
price we pay for a civilized society. And there is no more direct
result of our taxes than our courts. So to think of court budgets
getting cut when people are asking questions about what the
government does for them seems like the wrong thing to me.
The governor's proposed budget for the fiscal year was released on
Jan. 25, 2012. We can only trust that our elected officials keep
the judiciary, and the important role it plays for residents, in
mind as they debate the state budget over the coming months.
Leonardo Angiulo, a trial attorney with Glickman, Sugarman,
Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester, writes a weekly column for
the online news outlet GoLocalWorcester.com as its legal
contributor. He is a former prosecutor and a graduate of Suffolk
University Law School.