Chief justices warn 2012 budget will force layoffs, court closings

Issue August 2011 By Bill Archambeault

The state's court leaders warned that the recently approved $24.2 million cut to the court system budget is "devastating" and will force layoffs and court closings.

The dire message also included an unusual request that Gov. Deval Patrick stop appointing judges or clerk magistrates for fiscal 2012 -- except in emergencies -- claiming that the shortage of support staff is already "critical," and that for every judge or clerk magistrate appointed, three more staff members will need to be cut.

"We make this request for a moratorium on appointments with great reluctance and regret," the seven justices of the Supreme Judicial Court wrote to Patrick. "The people of Massachusetts deserve better. But the fiscal jeopardy into which the operation of the Trial Courts has been placed demands extraordinary action. We ask your cooperation in that action."

SJC Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan issued a joint statement July 12 decrying the fiscal 2012 budget that Patrick had signed the day before, which includes $519.9 million in court funding.

However, court officials say, the courts budget includes revenue collection projections that are "not obtainable," which would actually mean total court funding of $509 million. That amount would mean a nearly 16 percent cut, or $96 million total, since the beginning of fiscal 2009. A total of 1,115 positions have been lost since a hiring freeze was enacted by court leaders.

"In sum, the Fiscal Year 2012 budget will impact significantly the quality of justice in our courts and jeopardize the right of every person, guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution, to have recourse to the courts and obtain civil and criminal justice 'completely and without denial, promptly and without delay,'" Ireland and Mulligan wrote in their joint statement. "We look forward to engaging in continued discussions with the Governor and legislative leadership to avert these impacts."

Preventing additional layoffs and court closings would require about $32 million in funding, Mulligan said. State House News Service reported that Mulligan has met with legislators to discuss the situation. If legislators wanted, additional money could be added in a supplemental budget in the fall.

"Our court leaders have been extremely creative and innovative in handling the onslaught of budget challenges," said Martin W. Healy, the Massachusetts Bar Association's chief operating officer and chief legal counsel.

"Judges and frontline staff have been on call answering the bell for many months, and the system is straining. Dwindling state budgetary funds appear to be the forecast for the next few fiscal cycles. There are only so many things the court can do before it's faced with the difficult task of layoffs and court closings," Healy said. "We are hopeful that the Legislature is able to provide some relief in the coming months through the use of a supplemental budget appropriation."

To illustrate the severity of the impact, the joint statement included a list of 11 of the state's 101 courthouses that would be "relocated" and "consolidated," noting that planning was underway.

The courthouse consolidation plan would move:

  • Berkshire Juvenile Court to Northern Berkshire District Court (North Adams)
  • Charlestown Division of the Boston Municipal Court to the Boston Municipal Court
  • Framingham Juvenile Court to Marlborough District Court
  • Gloucester District Court to Salem District Court
  • Hingham District Court to Brockton District Court
  • Leominster District Court to Clinton District Court / Fitchburg District Court
  • New Bedford Housing Court to New Bedford District Court or to Fall River Durfee Courthouse
  • Norfolk Juvenile Court (Dedham) to Brookline District Court
  • Brookline District Court criminal matters to Dedham District Court; civil matters to Newton District Court
  • Wareham District Court to Plymouth District Court
  • Westborough District Court to Worcester District Court
  • Westfield District Court to Holyoke District Court /Chicopee District Court / So. Berkshire District Court