Additional budget cuts forcing Trial Court Dept. to consider layoffs, courthouse closings

Issue March 2009 By Bill Archambeault

Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed budget cuts could force the courts to close courthouses and leave others “perilously” understaffed, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan said.

Unless the Legislature restores some of the additional $23 million that Patrick has proposed cutting, the courts department will struggle to provide an adequate level of justice, Mulligan said.


 Hon. Robert A. Mulligan

“My main concern right now is having an adequate number of personnel. We’re getting perilously low,” he said, with 55 percent of the state’s courts below 85 percent of optimal staffing levels. “We have to have an adequate level of staffing to meet justice.”

In October, the Trial Court voluntarily cut $22 million out of its $605 million fiscal 2010 budget for a $583 million budget request. The Jan. 15 House of Delegates voted unanimously in favor of supporting the amount requested by the Trial Court, but Patrick announced an additional 7.5 percent cut on Jan. 28, to $560.3 million.

After Patrick’s cuts were announced in January, MBA President Edward W. McIntyre said the cuts were coming at a time when many citizens are depending on the state’s court system the most. McIntyre said the cuts will “imperil the core functions” of the courts and “impede access to timely justice.”

Michael Keating, chairman of the Court Management Advisory Board, said “The cuts in the judiciary are severe and they present real problems.”

The cuts, Mulligan said, will require layoffs on top of the hiring freeze, travel freeze and other budget cuts the courts made in October.

In addition to reducing hiring since February 2008, the courts have done everything from cancel travel and conference budgets to eliminate the interns program at the beginning of the year, meaning no new law clerks will be hired for fiscal 2010.

Mulligan even decided not to renew the courts’ bottled water contract, which is expiring now, in an effort to save roughly $200,000 next year.

“It underscores in a symbolic way that we’re doing everything we can to cut expenses,” he said.

And now Mulligan and his staff are evaluating canceling leases for courthouse space and staff offices, including the administrative offices of the Trial Court, which is located steps from the John Adams Courthouse in Downtown Boston at Two Center Plaza.

“We’re going to start looking at leases,” he said, noting that the courts are asking landlords to adjust their leases in hopes of staving off moves and consolidations.

“We may have to move our administrative offices to a suburban location. Obviously, we like to be close to Beacon Hill and the Adams Courthouse,” he said, but the money must be saved wherever possible to protect as many jobs as possible. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve tried to translate into the number of positions we’ve saved. We need the people.”

Beside the practical need for adequate court resources to meet the needs that typically increase during times of economic distress, Mulligan said the courts serve an important psychological function: people need to have faith that they can depend on continued access to justice.

“That restores people’s confidence when there’s a crisis,” he said. “It increases public confidence. It has an effect on the culture that’s not measurable, but is very important. It diminishes anxiety that we’re not going to be able to deliver justice.”