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