Lawyers Journal

State budget cuts for the Trial Court

*This column originally appeared on on Feb. 22, 2012, and is reprinted with the permission of the author and LLC.

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 heard?

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 important cases.

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 continue.

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 problem.

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 ignored?

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 and architecture.

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 as its legal contributor. He is a former prosecutor and a graduate of Suffolk University Law School.

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