Marshall: Budget cuts will put justice in “jeopardy”

Issue November 2009 By Bill Archambeault


Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall delivered a dire warning in her 10th Annual Address to the Legal Community: "Justice is in jeopardy in Massachusetts," she told nearly 200 people at the John Adams Courthouse on Oct. 21.

Marshall, who was recognized with the Massachusetts Bar Association's Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey Award on her tenth anniversary as chief justice, used the annual speech to convey how serious the situation is, rather than chart how much progress the courts have made, as she has done in past years.

"I wish that I could dwell on the successful, sweeping managerial reforms that have made - and continue to make - the judicial branch of this commonwealth admired across the country. But this year is no time for celebration, no time for congratulations. Why? In a word, crisis - a deepening crisis - with funding cuts that are putting great strain on our courts."

Marshall tallied the costs in both personnel and courthouse facilities.

"By year's end, Trial Court staffing levels will be slightly more than two-thirds of the appropriate - the necessary - levels identified for us by an independent, objective model developed by the National Center for State Courts, the nation's expert on that subject," she said.

Closure of court sessions

Several district courts have been relocated, she noted, and leases for rented spaces have been terminated.

"The closure of court sessions, the closure of more courthouses, is inevitable - inevitable - if the already decimated Trial Court budget is further reduced," she said.

Marshall expressed frustration that the courts have been hit harder than other departments of state government.

"The judicial branch is being asked to absorb a disproportionate amount of the necessary reductions in government spending," she said, noting that the judicial branch accounts for just 2.1 percent of state spending. The court department has reduced its workforce 7.5 percent, she said, greater than other departments.

"The Massachusetts Constitution establishes three co-equal branches of government. The disproportionate share of budget reductions falling to the judiciary comes at the worst possible time for the people of Massachusetts," Marshall said, noting increases in domestic violence and housing cases, among others.

"Are we now prepared to tell a woman who seeks a protective order for herself and her children to come back next week because budget cuts have forced the court to close for a day or more?" she said.

One year ago, when Gov. Deval Patrick asked state government departments to reduce their spending in light of the national recession, the courts voluntarily cut operating costs from $605 million to $583 million. This year's budget, which began July 1, was further reduced to $554 million, and now state leaders are saying the situation is even worse than they'd anticipated, and more cuts will  be needed.

"The Bleeding has just begun"

"Here is the truly dismal news: the bleeding has just begun," Marshall told the audience. "The budgetary forecasts for fiscal year 2011 and fiscal year 2012 presage more fiscal pain. Who will bear the brunt of this pain? Everyone who seeks access to our courts."

Marshall called on the judiciary, Legislature and governor's office to work together to strategize what types of changes in court operations and locations will be acceptable if further cuts are needed. She raised the possibility that more aggressive courthouse consolidation and the transfer of cases from judges to administrators might be necessary considerations.

"I do not point fingers," she said. "As chief justice, however, as one who has labored long and hard to bring lasting reform to the administration of justice in the commonwealth, and to broaden access to justice, as one who is passionate about the importance of courts to a free people, I cannot, I shall not, ignore that our courts are at a moment of peril."

She concluded by urging lawyers and court staff to speak up and contact the Legislature and governor. Though the courts serve an average of 42,000 people every day, Marshall said she has heard that the courts do not have a clear constituency.

"Let them know, in no uncertain terms, that there is a constituency for the delivery of justice, that there is a constituency for maintaining our democracy," Marshall said. "Never has your individual voice been more needed.