State’s chief justices give overview of budget constraints and new developments in their courts

Issue June 2011 By Jennifer Rosinski

The message from nine of the state's chief justices was clear and consistent: budget cuts have forced them to do more with less, and technology has helped keep on top of the mounting workload.

That overview came during the "Hail to the Chiefs" bench-bar panel moderated by Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants. The panel wrapped up day one of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Centennial Conference on May 18 at the Boston Sheraton Hotel.

"Where we go from here remains a good question," Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan said after giving an overview of the courts' $85 million in budget reductions since fiscal 2009. Just one day earlier, the Senate Ways & Means Committee released its fiscal 2012 budget, which funds the Trial Court at $519.8 million, a $24.3 million cut. He suggested civil cases will be affected. 

"We're at the point where we are going to have to take measures," Mulligan said. "We will not be able to deliver justice at every courthouse from 8 to 4 five days a week."

The Business Litigation Session should not be affected, however, Superior Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Rouse said. In its eleventh year, the BLS has firmer trial dates and is trying more cases. "The BLS has actually gotten more effective and productive," she said. "The bottom line is the BLS is alive and well, but we're feeling the pinch."

Despite a shortage of assistant clerks, District Court Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly said, drug, gun, mental health and veteran sessions still manage to expedite cases across the state. "One of the most exciting and innovative things we do in the district court are these specialty sessions."

The bar and the judiciary must work together and "speak with one voice" to better educate the Legislature and public about the need for adequate court funding, Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Charles R. Johnson said. "We see the bar as the most effective advocate for the judiciary," he said. "Without the bar, we do not have a voice."

Volunteer lawyers have really stepped up their level of generosity during this time of fiscal constraint, Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said. There are only three law clerks for 51 judges, who are all overworked. Decisions are delayed and some counties have no secretaries. "I can't thank you enough for the work you do in our courts," she said. "It's tough out there."

Housing Court Chief Justice Steven D. Pierce wants some of those volunteers to move over to his court, where more help is needed for self-represented litigants and with the Lawyer for a Day and Limited Assistance Representation programs, he said. "We need lawyers in our courts for a list of reasons so justice is done," Pierce said.

Technology is helping the Appeals Court work smarter and more efficiently while it struggles with a growing caseload, Appeals Court Chief Justice Phillip Rapoza said. The court is moving away from paper to electronic transactions, and has two new pilot programs; one that allows for filing civil dockets online and another that accepts electronic payments on a limited basis, he said. "The bleak picture is an opportunity for new technology to help us to conduct our business," Rapoza said.

Efficiency is also the focus of changes at the Juvenile Court, and among the items staff and judges are being trained on is videoconferencing, said Juvenile Court Chief Justice Michael F. Edgerton.

These tough economic times have made a tremendous impact on the Land Court, which is dealing with a large number of foreclosures, Land Court Chief Justice Karyn F. Scheier said. At the peak, the court was receiving 130 cases a day. That number has now dropped to 70 cases a day, but is expected to rise once the mortgage industry completes its reform of the foreclosure process. "We're triaging every day," said Scheier, who added that she does not believe judicial foreclosure is the answer.

"Hail to the Chiefs" closed with a reception, where SJC Suffolk County Clerk Maura S. Doyle received the MBA Public Service Award. Doyle is the first woman to hold the position of SJC Clerk for Suffolk County since the position's inception in 1692, and the first woman to hold a Suffolk County-wide elected office.

A Suffolk University Law School graduate, Doyle is responsible for managing the SJC's single justice caseload, appeals from state registration boards and agencies, all matters concerning the admission of attorneys to the Massachusetts bar and attorney discipline.