Justice unfunded is no justice at all

Issue April 2015 By Marsha V. Kazarosian

The Judicial branch of government is supposed to be on equal footing with the Executive and Legislative branches, but for some reason, that never seems to be the case when it comes to the budget. For too long it seems our courts have suffered disproportionately when purse strings need to be tightened.

While there has been more stability in the courts' funding in recent years, there is no question that the Massachusetts judiciary has consistently been forced to do more with less. The fact that they have been able to keep the judiciary running and even make some modest gains through improved technology and training is a credit to our court leadership, judges and staff. But this time, Gov. Charlie Baker's budget recommendations may be asking too much.

If those recommendations, released last month as House 1, were to become a reality, they would decimate the gains made in the Judicial branch and most certainly turn back the clock. The governor's Trial Court budget proposal of $603.3 million is nearly $40 million less than the Trial Court's maintenance request for fiscal year 2016 of $642.7 million. As Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said during his testimony before a hearing of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, "It would be even worse than the darkest days of the last financial crisis, when one in three of our courthouses had to restrict public hours just to process cases."

Governor Baker is correct. Times are tough for the commonwealth financially. Massachusetts has a $1.8 billion shortfall. But the Judiciary should not be required to ensure the safety of our citizens and uphold the Rule of Law on a shoestring. According to court figures, since fiscal year 2008, the "non-judicial" state budget increased by 37.3 percent, from $26.0 billion to $35.7 billion. During the same period, the Trial Court's budget increased by only 4.6 percent. That makes no fiscal sense.

Staffing levels for the Trial Court are down more than 1,200 positions since 2008, while the rest of the state has added three times that number in new placements. As Court Administrator Harry Spence said in his remarks to the Joint Committee, "We certainly are committed to operating a system that continually seeks efficiency, however we should not be penalized for that efficiency."

Here's the first thing that would happen if House 1 went into effect:

The Trial Court would have to reduce staff by another 550 people. That means our local communities would return to suffering trial delays, court closures and the doors to justice blocked.

Here's what would not happen:

Specialty courts, such as drug courts, won't get the critical funding needed while the commonwealth grapples with a massive addiction problem and recidivism. The Housing Court won't have its much-needed statewide expansion, leaving a full 31 percent of the state without access to this important frontline court. And Court Service Centers, which have assisted tremendous volumes of unrepresented individuals in the two existing pilot programs in Boston and Greenfield, won't have a chance to be expanded to serve the Trial Court's 15 largest courthouses.

The bottom line is without our courts getting the funding they need, there won't be equal access to justice in the commonwealth.

To be fair, the governor had very little time since taking office to fully understand the dire impact his budget proposals would have on the judiciary. And court leaders have since met with the Office of Administration and Finance. The governor's budget is also the first step in a long process. The House of Representatives will be making its budget proposals in April, and the Senate's budget is typically unveiled a month later.

The MBA will continue to lead the charge for proper court funding throughout the budget process, as we have done year after year. But we urge each of you to get involved as well, because you are the voters, and you hold the purse strings.

The American Bar Association's Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section, of which I am a member, has created a Full Court Funding Toolkit, which includes information to help you understand the national crisis caused by underfunded courts, as well as tools for all of us to "take action." You can find a link to it here.

One of the most powerful components of the Toolkit is a video, which features Boston Municipal Court Clerk-Magistrate Dan Hogan detailing the Massachusetts predicament in one segment. "A majority of a court's budget is based on personnel," Hogan says. "We have eliminated everything, including law clerks. We've slashed ADR programs. Judges, magistrates and others took furloughs."

Our courts cannot afford any more of this. Justice is a fundamental right, and equal justice cannot happen without financial support. Let's make it happen.