Courts at ‘breaking point,’ Bench-Bar summit calls for help

Issue May 2011 By Bill Archambeault

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland and other court leaders assembled the heads of the state's bar associations recently to ask their support in lobbying legislators for adequate court funding in next year's budget.

Trial Court funding has dropped from around $583.7 million in fiscal 2009 to $544.1 million in fiscal 2011, and now is urging bar leaders to lobby for more than the $518.7 million recommended by the House Ways & Means Committee.

Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan described the Ways & Means amount as "very, very disappointing. That's a very tough number to deal with."

Despite having more courthouses and a larger caseload, the courts have lost 1,071 people since July 1, 2007, leaving staffing at its lowest level since 1997. The hardest hit Trial Court division has been the Land Court, which is currently operating at 45 percent of its staffing model level, with 85 percent considered "adequate" and anything below 75 percent considered "critical."

"We're bleeding out people," he said, describing the combined effect of attrition and a strict no-hiring policy.

"I don't think we can do this much longer," Mulligan told the audience of about three dozen people. "I hope you will advocate for us. $518 (million) is a very disappointing number."

The bar association leaders were provided contact information for House and Senate leaders and asked to lobby them for level funding of $544.1 million for the Trial Court Department and $34.9 million for the appellate courts.

Speaking on behalf of the Massachusetts Bar Association, Treasurer Robert L. Holloway Jr., emphasized the association's commitment to improving the courts' budget problems.

"As Chief Justices Ireland and Mulligan know, the MBA remains committed to lending a voice to this critically important issue," Holloway said. "In addition to our ongoing lobbying efforts with legislators, we continue to raise awareness among the bar and the public alike regarding the necessary funding to sustain the critical needs of the Massachusetts court system."

Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey said her staff is relying on "triage" to get by. For example, she said her court can't do investigations, judges have had to share rulebooks because of budget cuts, and the lack of court officers is causing delays and safety concerns.

With the widespread court reforms initiated in the wake of the Monan Report, the courts are now the most transparent, efficient and well-run branch of government, Carey said, adding that the courts can quantify the effects budget cuts have had. Carey said she feels like she's operated in crisis mode since she was appointed in 2007.

"We desperately need your help," she said. "We are at the breaking point."