Lawyers and judges warned lawmakers on Monday that budget constraints on the state’s judiciary are imperiling the delivery of justice and compromising security in its courts.
Robert Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management, said a 17 percent reduction in court staff over the past four years has made it nearly impossible for the court system to keep pace with its caseload, but he said closing courthouses was “not on the table right now.”
The Massachusetts Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association hosted a Court Advocacy Day at the Statehouse to lobby legislators to increase funding for the state’s courts in the budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. The lawyers’ group, backed by the state’s top judges, said it was seeking about $25 million more than the $568 million that Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed in his fiscal 2013 spending plan.
“We’re not crying wolf. We’re not overdramatic. This is truly a crisis situation,” said Lisa Goodheart, president of the Boston Bar Association.
Roderick Ireland, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, acknowledged that virtually every aspect of state government had suffered budget cuts and been forced to compete for scarce financial resources over the past four years. But he said the courts hold a special role in society.
“The judiciary is not a program,” Ireland said. “It is not an agency but a branch of government formed by our constitution.”
The Massachusetts Bar Association has launched a statewide campaign to focus attention on the cuts, including billboards that suggest some courthouses may be forced to close without increased funding.
But Mulligan told reporters Monday that a moratorium against court closures will remain in place at least through July 1, when a new civilian administrator is expected to take over budgeting and other day-to-day management tasks for the trial court. The position was created under a court reorganization bill that was passed last year after a patronage scandal that rocked the state probation department.
Mulligan pointed out that about 40 court clerk’s offices around the state, affecting about one-third of the courts, already are forced to periodically close to the public to give overburdened staffers a chance to catch up on paperwork. He also said the elimination of 250 court officers in recent years has made the courts less safe.
“We have grave concerns about our ability to secure our courthouses,” he said.
As an example, Mulligan cited cases in which available court officers are shifted to courtrooms where jury verdicts are being read, a move to help protect against emotional outbursts but one that also forces other business in the court to grind to a halt.
There are more than 100 courts listed on the state court system’s website. It’s unclear if all have clerk’s offices, plus some larger courts would have two, one for criminal matters and one for civil matters.
Patrick said Monday that, while he was supportive of the judiciary, the courts were not immune to belt tightening.
“They would not be unlike other very important parts of state government (that) deserve a different level of funding than we are able to do at a time like this,” the governor said.
The state Office of Administration and Finance said the governor’s budget calls for funding the courts at about the same level as in the current year but also separately sets aside nearly $28 million for pay increases under collective bargaining.
Patrick’s $32.3 billion state budget is being reviewed by the House Ways and Means Committee, which is expected to issue its own spending recommendations next month.