CJAM Mulligan presents Trial Court’s challenges

Issue October 2010 By Bill Archambeault

Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan provided a sobering overview of the state of the Trial Court Department to the Massachusetts Bar Association's House of Delegates meeting on Sept. 16.

One bright spot he noted is the nearing completion of three new courthouse complexes, as well as several new and recent initiatives that are improving service.

"We're in a very difficult situation" as the Trial Courts await their budget for fiscal 2011, Mulligan told the group. After absorbing a $70 million reduction in funding over the last two years, the courts are anticipating another $10 million reduction for fiscal 2011 and could expect further reductions in fiscal 2012.

He thanked the MBA for its advocacy during the budget process, saying the budget is "not what we need, but it's better than what it would have been."

Mulligan noted that the courts have made a number of drastic cost-cutting measures, including: reducing staff through attrition, consolidating courthouses, moving some courts out of leased property and into state-owned buildings, reducing energy costs by millions of dollars through green initiatives, and asking judges to volunteer for five-day furloughs.

"We're trying to save money wherever we can," he said.

At the Sept. 16 meeting, Mulligan said he expected to reach a decision on which courthouses to close and relocate before the end of the month. Those savings would begin in fiscal 2011.

Impact of staff reductions

Before the end of this year, there will be 1,000 fewer court employees than there were in 1997, Mulligan said, from 7,629 as of July 1, 2007, to 6,665 as of Sept. 1, 2010. His goal had been to maintain 85 percent of full staffing levels in every court department, but only the Superior Court exceeds that, at 88.2 percent. Every other court has fallen well below that, with an average staffing level of 71.1 percent overall. The Land Court is suffering the worst shortfall, with just 44.3 percent of the fully staffed number.

While praising the Sept. 30 ceremonial opening of the Fall River Judicial Center, he noted that visitors will see many of the clerks' desks empty because of staffing losses.

"It's very difficult to get the work done with the staffing levels in the clerks' office," he said.

Utility and energy savings for electricity, steam, natural gas, heating oil and water/sewer costs were $2 million less in fiscal 2010 than fiscal 2009, and $2.9 million less in fiscal 2009 than fiscal 2008.

One of the ironies of the staffing reductions, he said, is that it reduces the courts' budget even further because there are fewer people to help collect revenues.

About 10 percent of the Trial Court budget, or $53 million in fiscal 2010, depends on retained revenue collection. But with fewer staff to collect those fees, the courts lost $5 million over the last two years.

Case clearance rates -- one of the goals called for in the Monan Committee Report reforms in 2003 -- have also suffered since 2007. While the percentage of cases disposed of within the time standards guidelines has increased slightly, the number of cases pending beyond time standards have increased to 89,251 cases in the second quarter year-to-date, up from 83,436 in 2009 and 73,580 in 2007.

Some positive news to report

However, there is some good news coming out of the courts, he said. Thanks to improvements in the juror selection process, the number of people appearing for juror service has dropped steadily, from 338,931 in 2006 to 271,788 in 2009. If the trend continues, there will be a 23.1 percent drop from 2006 to 2010, or 78,301 fewer people who were inconvenienced making a trip to court for juror service.

Mulligan also announced that progress is being made on new initiatives, including:

  • Adding Limited Assistance Representation to the Probate & Family Court and Boston Municipal Court, and adding it to Housing Court on Nov. 1, 2010, and a civil pilot project to District Court in 2011;
  • The launch of the Access to Justice Initiative, under the leadership of Judge Dina L. Fein, which is working on improvements on court forms, information desks, self-help manuals and clerks manual training;
  • An evidence-based sentencing pilot program in Essex County; and
  • Various technology improvements.

"We want to make sure that while we have these funding issues, they don't affect people's access to justice," Mulligan said.

In addition to the opening of the $85 million Fall River Judicial Center last month, the $86 million Taunton Courthouse is expected to open in spring 2011 and the $106 million Salem Courthouse-Ruane Judicial Center is expected to open in summer 2011.