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"
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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.