Section Review

For better courts: Regional justice centers

Judge Robert A. Cornetta is a trial justice of the District Court Department and a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Judicial Administration Section Council.
Since the beginning of fiscal 2002, it has been apparent that the Massachusetts government has been in a state of financial free-fall. The result of this circumstance has had no greater impact than upon the state's court system. Reductions in funding for the state's trial court has resulted in layoffs and early retirements, reduced court sessions and counter hours at clerks' and registers' offices, delays in case processing and trials' scheduling.

In times past such a situation responded to (albeit haltingly) public protestations, dire warnings and political entreats. In response to the clamor, policy makers would inevitably cobble together an interim financial fix until the storm had passed and prosperity returned. Then, it would be business as usual … once again.

This time it is different.

With so much of public budgets committed to social services and health care costs for increasingly needy and aging segments of the population, we are now set upon a course destined to result in a diminished public resource pool from which a variety of other government functions (including our courts) will be competing for survival.

We are witnessing a sea change in how government will be funded, how it will function and what a reasonable definition of expectations will be. And, it must be conceded up-front that this predicament will not be changing any time soon. The "T" word (taxes) is off the table, a fact recognized by both the executive and legislative departments alike.

Yet, even in this maelstrom of fierce competition for public dollars, there can be an opportunity for real improvement and change. The wise and those who ultimately will thrive in such an atmosphere are quick to assess the realities of these times and adjust their public postures accordingly. So, what does all of this portend for the future of our courts? Consider the following.

From the point of view of maintaining and improving our state courts, it means that maintaining some 120-plus separate and marginally functioning facilities scattered about the state is no longer financially possible. Judges are all too aware of the fact that we are now working out of facilities that originally were sited at the turn of the last century based upon factors that have little, if any, application today. Courthouses that were intended to serve one trial function in one or a small group of communities are simply too unwieldy and expensive to properly maintain and operate today. In siting, designing, constructing and maintaining court facilities in the future, something more than political considerations must be in play. Indeed, economics, functionality and common sense must be used as yardsticks for building court facilities in the future.

The concept of regional justice centers, where all seven trial court departments function within a strategically located and adequately outfitted facility represents an acceptable trade-off between political sensitivities and practical reality. This concept is much akin to the consolidation we have witnessed in the health care industry where out of financial necessity, regional medical centers have had to absorb our cherished community hospitals.

Members of the judiciary and their valued support staff have long argued for courthouses that are safe, clean, healthy and functional. A good look at our courthouses today confirms that we have yet to achieve that goal even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours of debate and planning in attacking the problem.

In the new economy, some policy makers now argue that safe, clean and healthy court facilities are not just a moving target. With proper planning and universal siting and construction guidelines, this goal can become a reality in Massachusetts, especially when economies of scale are embraced over local parochial interests.

It is far easier and less expensive to site, construct and maintain centrally located regional justice centers that serve all of our population when you standardize design and building specifications, sensibly locate the facilities and reasonably limit their number by regionalized need. This concept also can allow such capital projects to have varied and unique facades that accommodate local community tastes while maintaining standard interior designs that complement standardized interior functions. The policing, securing, maintaining and provisioning of such regionalized facilities further adds to their ability to provide safe, clean, healthy and functional court facilities throughout the state at a significant reduction in cost.

An added benefit of this concept of court facilities is the grouping of a number of trial court departments and functions within one modern and functional location, thereby providing easier access and use by members of the bar and public. This provides for more timely, uniform and convenient delivery of service at a lesser, overall cost.

Judges, lawyers, employees, members of the public and taxpayers are universally in favor of better court facilities. Indeed, their elected public officials struggle with this issue as one of a series of public policy issues affecting the balance of this century and into the next.

By one well-respected estimate, we could realize this goal, statewide, within a decade at a capital outlay of less than $2 billion by embracing a comprehensive plan of regional justice centers for Massachusetts. That means new, functional, safe and healthy facilities statewide to realize the best possible work product coming from our court employees and judges while providing for the public's need, convenience and pocketbook in these changing times.

So, what are we waiting for?

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association