Budget cuts would choke courts, Court Advocacy Day rally warns

Issue May 2009 By Jennifer Rosinski

More than 100 attorneys and legal advocates rallied together March 31 and urged legislators to support adequate funding for the judiciary during Court Advocacy Day at the Statehouse. The event was co-sponsored by the Massachusetts and Boston bar associations.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall painted a dire picture of the court’s future if the current proposed budget is passed for fiscal year 2010: “Justice will be delayed,” she told the crowd gathered at the Grand Staircase.

If Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed fiscal year 2010 budget of $579.4 million for the courts is passed, it will lead to up to 375 layoffs, relocations of courthouses, delaying of restraining orders and CHINS petitions, as well as an increase in the number of pre-trial detainees, according to court officials.
“Justice is like oxygen,” Marshall said. “While you are breathing it, you barely notice that you are. Cut off the supply, and you will notice it more quickly than you realize.”

The judiciary is requesting a total budget of $622.7 million, including $601.2 million for the Trial Court that incorporates $17.5 million to fund the fiscal year 2010 portion of the Local 6 contract for clerical workers.

“We ask the Legislature today to fund the Massachusetts judiciary at $622.7 million to ensure the courts’ core functions are sustained,” Massachusetts Bar Association President Edward W. McIntyre said. “I encourage you to speak to your legislators today and to follow up with them through the budget process, asking them to appropriately fund the Massachusetts court system to ensure access to justice for citizens across the commonwealth.”

At least 70 percent of Massachusetts courts are already working below recommended national staffing levels, forcing the remote processing of cases and assistant clerks to travel between courthouses to help out.

The courts have already trimmed $22.1 million from the fiscal year 2009 budget, limited hiring and imposed a hiring freeze, as well as eliminated both alternative dispute resolution contracts and funding for per diem court reporters and information technology projects, among other cuts.

The cuts will hit families and communities hard because both are deeply affected by a slumping economy, Marshall said. The courts have seen a surge in the number of foreclosure, domestic violence and elder abuse cases. Also increasing are appeals to lower child support payments because parents are now unemployed. “During very tough economic times, people turn increasingly to the courts,” Marshall said.

Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan met with Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo, Senate President Therese Murray and the chairs of the Ways & Means Committee before the start of Court Advocacy Day to share in person the impacts of the proposed fiscal reductions.

The Trial Court needs $583.7 million to maintain current services for those who go to the state’s 106 courthouses, Mulligan said. More than 40,000 people, excluding jurors, visit the average Massachusetts courthouse on a given weekday, according to an unscientific tally of visitors to an undisclosed courthouse in March.

“We’re running with a very Spartan workforce,” said Mulligan, who revealed that 250 people would have to be let go for every $10 million below $583.7 million. “I am fearful [a reduced budget] will absolutely impede our ability to deliver justice at our courthouses across the commonwealth.”

“Anything less than the requested funding of the judiciary will seriously undermine the administration of justice in our commonwealth,” Boston Bar Association President Kathy B. Weinman said. “We all know that the need for justice is greater when times are tough … Inadequate funding for the courts will hit where it hurts.”

After the speaking program, attendees visited their legislators to lobby for the court’s requested budget amount and presented fact sheets that outline the ramifications of a slashed budget.