'Danger zone' for courts a key topic at Annual Conference 2003

Issue February 2003 By Lynne Feibelmann

The fiscal crisis in Massachusetts' courts system - and what lawyers and the legislature can do to deal with it - became a central theme echoed throughout the MBA's three-day Annual Conference 2003. From opening remarks at the House of Delegates meeting on Jan. 23 through Saturday's closing lunch two days later, courts budgets, past and pending layoffs, curtailed services, as well as solutions, new technologies and lobbying efforts were all debated and explored.

In an address to the House of Delegates on the opening day of the conference, Barbara A. Dortch-Okara, chief justice for Administration and Management of the Trial Court, reminded the association that the state's trial court has been required to cut minimum expenses by $60 million and reduce staff by more than 1,000 employees in the last two years.

"The judiciary has been starved," Dortch-Okara said. "We have had to do more with less to allow meaningful access to justice for all throughout the past 18 months."

She said the trial court is modifying hours of operation, transferring employees and consolidating sessions.

Although budget cuts are affecting the distribution of resources, she noted, the trial court is progressing with facility improvements such as courthouses in Plymouth, Worcester, Taunton and Boston.

The largest improvement is the launch of MassCourts, an electronic records system that, when it is fully operational early next year, will provide the largest, most comprehensive centralized court database in the nation.

"We will be a national leader in the delivery of justice solutions to our constituents," said Superior Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman, the project's executive director, in unveiling the program at the MBA meeting.

But as courts ready for the new electronic system, they still struggle with the impact of significant staff reduction.

During a Bench/Bar forum on Saturday, Suzanne V. DelVecchio, chief justice of the Superior Court, said a dramatic decrease in the number of court reporters has delayed decisions. In addition, the Superior Court last year was able to hire only 39 law clerks instead of the usual 65.

"We might institute conciliation sessions where judges who are used to settling will conciliate for a month at a time," she said.

The Probate and Family Court also has seen a loss of employees due to early retirement and layoffs, according to Chief Justice Sean M. Dunphy.

Sessions have been cancelled due to an insufficient number of court officers in Essex, Brockton and Plymouth, he said. The court implemented a self-help center online to inform the public about legal assistance, legal aid and lawyer-for-a-day programs.

Judge David Sacks of the Probate and Family Court in Springfield said his staff has decreased.

"We're changing the way we're scheduling cases so we don't burn out the existing staff, which is causing some delays," he said, adding that some judges have not had clerks for many sessions.

A participant suggested combining the Probate Court with the Juvenile Court, but Juvenile Court Chief Justice Martha Grace didn't foresee the merger as a solution.

"There may be no judicial savings in that. We don't have enough courtrooms for our needs," she said. "We are impacted by other cuts in Department of Social Services, Department of Youth Services and the Department of Mental Health."

Judge Scott Kafker, who hired a second-year law student this fall, suggested that judges hire third-year law students to work as law clerks for academic credit.

"It becomes a confidentiality issue," said DelVecchio. "They get jobs with law firms who are before the court, which happens from time to time. It's very hard to bring someone in as a volunteer."

Grace said many students want to do clinical programs rather than assist with findings and only two areas of the state would benefit from such a program with law schools: Boston and Springfield.

The issues of decreased staff and delays in service also were central to the remarks by Hon. Margaret H. Marshall, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, during her annual address at the conference closing lunch. She said the manner in which justice is being delivered is threatened because the structure of the court system is "ill-suited to meet the demands of this decade."

Marshall said that despite the hard work of court employees such as Paula Vizard - a 22-year Suffolk Superior Court probation office employee who meets with 40 or more clients needing sobriety treatment on Sundays because clients can no longer get court-funded childcare during the week - the state's budget emergency is straining the court system.

"Despite all their hard work I would be less than frank if I did not state plainly what you all know: the delivery of justice is approaching the danger zone in Massachusetts," Marshall said to more than 200 judges and attorneys gathered the lunch. "It is a structure that poorly serves the day-to-day requirements of justice, and produces frustration, even despair."

Over the past two years, she said, with more than 1,000 court employees having left the system due to attrition, early retirement and a virtual hiring freeze, the drastic reduction is impacting ever corner of the system. For example, she said, Lowell District Court case coordinator Paula M. Houston is now the only person in that court who handles the entry of domestic violence protection requests. In 2002, said Marshall, Houston worked on 1,700 cases.