Our courts in crisis

Issue June 2010 By Valerie A. Yarashus

Suffolk County Clerk-Magistrate Michael Donovan summed up the effects of the Trial Court budget cuts in his court when he told the MBA Crisis in Court Funding Task Force, "Collection cases are up, pro se [representation] is up, mortgage foreclosures and credit card defaults are all up. The only thing that's declined is the resources we need to serve the public."

In order to understand the day-to-day effects of the budget cuts over the last two years, the MBA assembled a "Crisis in Court Funding Task Force" chaired by Martin F. Kane II.

Multiple sources have provided helpful overviews of relevant statistics: Overall, the Trial Court lost 9.7 percent of its staff between July 1, 2007, and May 10, 2010, due to a hard hiring freeze.  This means that 740 staff positions have gone unfilled and remain vacant. Detailed, confirmed reports are documented in this report showing a system stressed beyond reason. Judges without sufficient secretarial assistance must take time to type their own orders. Fewer filing clerks mean that documents sometimes do not reach session clerks in a timely way, thereby leading to dismissal or default orders which must be reversed. Lines to get into courthouses and past security stretch to 150 people, in some places. A judge who pushed a panic button for security had a slow response due to reduced court officer staffing. Insufficient numbers of translators are available, necessitating multiple trips to court for people who cannot afford to be missing work. Court dockets are burdened beyond reason: one family court judge was scheduled to hear a staggering 58 motions in one day. The list goes on and on.

As the report notes, "There is no grief index against which one can measure the agonizing encounters litigants have experienced with the overtaxed courts." This task force report is a piece of the puzzle, though, in sharing the impact of the havoc wreaked on the system by slashing the Trial Court's budget so harshly. One clerk has described it as a "slow train wreck."

At the same time, the Massachusetts Judges Conference has recently released an excellent but deeply disturbing report, "Safety and Security First," which documents the very real safety impact of these budget cuts. In 2008, 409 security incidents were reported to the Security Department of the Administrative Office of the Trial Court, involving 24 threats against judges, 34 threats against employees and 351 assaults or disturbances in courthouses. The assaults and threats are so real and dramatic that it is worth quoting here some examples from the "Safety and Security First" report:

  • Criminal defendant threatened to kill a judge as the defendant was being brought from the courtroom after a bail hearing.
  • After ordering medication and commitment for an individual, he exploded in a violent rage and lunged across the table to a judge.
  • Criminal defendant reacted to a judge's decision by cursing, threatening and overturning the counsel table.
  • Father of a party made a threat against the judge and the judge's family in open court.
  • Defendant remarked that he knows where the judge lives and will burn down his house.
  • Because a judge gave custody of the children to the Department of Children and Families, a parent threatened to "take" the judge's son.
  • Numerous instances of telephone calls to homes of judges with threats or complaints about decisions.
  • A judge's home was attacked while the judge and the judge's family slept.

Sadly, the list continues. Fifty-nine percent of judges responding to the survey stated that they had been threatened. Twenty-one percent of judges responding believe their family is at risk. Thirty-one percent of responding judges have sought law enforcement protection because of specific threats, and 8 percent have filed criminal complaints.

Unfortunately, this increase in violence is accompanied by a decrease in funding, which means that there are fewer court officers. The condition has reached such troubling levels that the Massachusetts Judges Conference found it appropriate to support "any judge who decides it is not safe to conduct a court session because there is inadequate security, and recommends against any judge conducting a court session without the presence of a court officer."

If the current state of affairs were not bad enough, it looks as though we may be headed for even further and more painful funding cuts. On April 15, 2010, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan issued a joint statement to the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee, which stated:

"We are gravely concerned about our ability to deliver justice at the funding level of $529.1 million recommended by the House Ways and Means Committee for Trial Court operations in FY11…. A budget of $529.1 million will not allow us to staff and secure the number of courthouses presently operating in the Commonwealth. The House recommendation is $30.3 million less than our FY10 budget and $76 million (12.5%) less than our initial funding in FY09. The recommended funding level will require closure of at least ten to fifteen courthouses and the layoff of hundreds of employees."

Hon. Peter Agnes, president of the Massachusetts Judges Conference, noted in a letter dated May 13, 2010, to Senate President Therese Murray that:

"Without Senate action, it is likely that the budget for the Trial Court beginning on July 1st will be cut 30 million dollars below the current FY2010 level. This rapid and precipitous decrease in funding, compounded by reductions over the past three years, will mean closing twelve to fifteen courthouses, layoffs of up to 500 employees, and system-wide furloughs. Also, due to a recent ruling by an arbitrator, the impact of this reduction will be even greater if funds are not appropriated to pay Local 6 employees the unfunded portions of their contract for FY2009, FY2010 and what will become due in FY2011."

This calamitous situation is even more heartbreaking in light of the progress that the trial courts had made in the years following The Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts Report (commonly known as the "Monan Report") to Chief Justice Marshall in March 2003. In the annual report to follow up on this report, the ongoing Court Management Advisory Board (CMAB) noted that:

"[t]he CMAB is pleased by the Trial Court's continuing transformation to a court system that uses performance measurements and empirical data to inform decision-making and determine best practices. The CMAB attributes the progress in management reform not only to the strong leadership of Chief Justice Mulligan and the departmental chief justices, but also to the dedication and hard work of the Trial Court judges, clerks and staff."

Now, two years later, this progress hangs in the balance.

When you are asked to contact your legislator or elected officials in the coming weeks to help maintain funding for our court system, which serves 42,000 members of the public every day, please respond to that call for action. The future of our courts depends on all of us.