State Budget Cuts Leave Courts Few Options

Issue September 2010 By Bill Archambeault

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 courts.

"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 recommendations.

"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 times."

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 now.

"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 dire.

"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 courthouses.

"Everyone has to give in," Hogan said. "The financial situation is dire. We can't go another year with a hiring freeze."