Reform bills, court closings dominate legislative summer

Issue September 2011

Historic court reform legislation was signed into law, but two other issues championed by the Massachusetts Bar Association were left unresolved as a busy legislative summer ended.

As this issue went to press, alimony reform legislation was awaiting action by the Legislature, having adopted technically different versions. Also, tensions over the adequate funding of the court system promised to remain a contentious issue into the fall. The states top judges asked Patrick to stop appointing judges until there was enough money allocated to support them. They also warned of layoffs and released plans for closing courthouses, highlighting the impact that substantial, ongoing budget cuts have had on the Trial Court Department.

The MBA applauded the Aug. 4 approval of legislation enacting court reform, something it has advocated for decades. MBA studies in 1976, 1991 and 2003 supported major judicial reform, including hiring a non-judicial court administrator to oversee the Trial Court's business operations.

"This much needed change will ensure Massachusetts courts are run in the most efficient manner, which benefits all members of the public," said MBA Chief Legal 
Counsel Martin W. Healy. "At a time when the court system is experiencing major fiscal cuts and dwindling resources this measure will assist court leaders in facing these challenges."

In late July, the House of Representatives and Senate unanimously approved The Alimony Reform Act of 2011, sweeping legislation that will set clear guidelines throughout Massachusetts courts and structure alimony orders, in large part, on the length of a marriage.

"Massachusetts families facing the emotional turmoil of a divorce need alimony orders that make sense, strive for fairness and take the length of a marriage into account," said MBA Past President Denise Squillante, who operates a family law practice in Fall River and was a  member of the legislative task force that drafted the bill. "This legislation will completely overhaul the state's current antiquated system of setting alimony. The change is long overdue."

As for the court funding crisis, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan filed a statutorily required report on court relocations with the Legislature on Aug. 10.

The report outlines the work of the Court Relocation Committee and the fiscal climate of the Trial Court that necessitates court closings.

The Trial Court's fiscal 2012 appropriation is $519.9 million, down from $605 million in fiscal 2009. The Trial Court has made extensive cost-saving moves since the fiscal crisis began, including implementing a hiring freeze in 2007 that has resulted in the loss of more than 
1,100 staff.