As the Trial Court Department considers drastic cost-cutting
recommendations to move and consolidate more than a dozen
courthouses statewide, concerns have been raised about the impact
the changes would have.
A decision is expected this fall, and anxiety is rising.
The Trial Court is facing a $24.7 million reduction from last
year's budget -- and a $70.3 million drop from fiscal 2009's $605.1
million budget. The courts have lost more than 700 employees since
October 2008, when an ongoing hiring freeze was enacted. Energy
savings and lease renegotiations and cancellations have yielded
millions. Despite all the cost-cutting pain, court officials are
still racing to offset their shrinking budget.
With few options, the court system's hopes for living within next
year's budget are now focused largely on consolidating court
functions across a number of communities. Concerns about the
potential impact on the system, as well as the people who rely on
it, are still being weighed in response to the July 30 release of
recommendations from the Trial Court Relocation Committee, which
was charged with the unenviable task of proposing which courts to
consolidate. Hearings were held last month in Worcester, Boston,
Brockton and Plymouth, all of which drew more than 100 people each;
some were standing-room-only crowds.
Court officials and members of the committee declined to comment
about the recommendations, but the process is being watched closely
by the legal community.
"We remain concerned about the plan's impact on local communities
and individuals' access to courthouses," said MBA immediate Past
President Valerie A. Yarashus, who explained that the only solution
to ensure proper access to justice is adequate funding of the
"In tough fiscal times, the courts always struggle to dispense
justice with limited resources. Unfortunately, there are just not a
lot of alternatives for maintaining the status quo," said MBA
General Counsel and Acting Executive Director Martin W. Healy.
"Consolidations will make it difficult for attorneys and clients.
It can have a real effect on people's lives. Overall, our courts
have done a great job in being sensitive to the needs of the public
and balancing the limited resources at their disposal."
Healy said the MBA was pleased that representatives from the
organized bar were involved in developing the
"I don't think there are many attractive options," he said. "The
courts are trying to be as sensitive as they possibly can. The
courts don't relish the position they're in. It really seems like
there's been a system-wide effort to face these difficult economic
Daniel J. Hogan, the clerk-magistrate of Boston Municipal Court
and president of the 400-member Association of Magistrates &
Assistant Clerks, however, said courthouses should not be closed
except as an absolute last resort. Relocating courthouses will
almost certainly not be a temporary solution, he said.
"You can call it whatever you want, but the temporary relocation
of one courthouse to another is permanent," he said, mentioning as
an example the decision to move Natick District Court in early
October 2009 to Framingham District Court. "Natick is not going
back. It's just not going to happen. When you move Natick District
Court to Framingham, you've eliminated it."
At the public hearing in Boston, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn A. Kirk
advocated to keep Gloucester District Court from moving to Salem.
Her city already absorbs many of the costs of operating Gloucester
District Court, which is located in a city-owned building, with
roughly 60 years remaining on a 100-year lease. The court does not
pay any rent; it does pay about $20,000, or one third, of the
building's $60,000 in annual utility expenses. The lease agreement
allows the city to charge the court as much as $10,000 a year for
building repairs and maintenance, but has charged the court only
about $20,000 total over the last 10 years.
In all, "the bottom line cost for the Gloucester District Court
[is] about $42,000 per year to be located in Gloucester," according
to Kirk's testimony at the hearing.
The Gloucester Police Department estimated, she said, that it
would spend another $25,000 to $40,000 a year in mileage and
overtime costs to send its officers to other towns on court
business. Illustrating how badly she wants to keep the court in
Gloucester, Kirk offered to sweeten the current no-rent deal and
"hammer out a no-cost arrangement with the city in order to keep
the court here."
"The city of Gloucester would much rather pick up the cleaning,
utility and prisoner food expense to keep the court in the city
than to pay the police overtime associated with the court being out
of the city," she testified.
In addition to higher police expenses, cities and towns facing
courthouse relocations can anticipate reductions in jobs and tax
revenue from the loss of court-related business. And citizens
appearing in court will have a harder time traveling to another
town, especially if they don't own a car.
"We just believe that the courthouse is the fabric of the
community and that no courthouse should be considered for closure
or consolidation until every other avenue has been exhausted," said
Hogan, the court magistrates and clerks association president.
"People's access to justice must be preserved at all costs."
He acknowledged that the courts are in a difficult position, and
have already absorbed significant pain through the loss of
personnel. At Boston Municipal Court, Hogan said he is down from a
full staff of 102 people seven or eight years ago to just 48
"The chief justice for administration and management has tried to
minimize the loss of personnel. He's certainly trying hard," Hogan
said. "But the numbers are staggering. I'm not suggesting I need
102 people to run this place, because we've changed how we operate.
But I need more than I have now."
Hogan, who hasn't hired anyone in four years, said he probably
needs at least 60 employees. And this year, in addition to the
hiring freeze and the furlough program, the Trial Courts announced
it is offering incentives for retirement, voluntary layoffs and
work-hour reductions. Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret
H. Marshall warned in October 2009 that "justice is in jeopardy"
from under-funding, and the situation has only grown more
"We can't continue to do the people's business at the current
level" of staffing, Hogan said.
He was glad to see efforts to fill some of the vacant space in
Boston, like moving the Land Court from leased space at 226
Causeway St. in Boston to the Suffolk County Courthouse in
Pemberton Square, next to the John Adams Courthouse.
But he said that the building could still house considerably more
court functions. Specifically, he'd like to see the Trial Court
Department move all of its offices out of its leased space at the
Center Plaza building, which is just steps from the John Adams
Courthouse. He also suggested consolidating the Social Law Library
in the Adams Courthouse and moving more Boston-area court
operations into that space before shutting any community
"Everyone has to give in," Hogan said. "The financial situation is
dire. We can't go another year with a hiring freeze."