Massachusetts Trial Court System Ready to Make “Devastating” Cuts

NOTE: This article is from July 2010. For the most recent news on Mass Trial Court moves/closings click here: PoliceLegal 2012 Mass Trial Court News

Due to a budget shortfall of $25 million, the Trial Court system is poised to lay off up to 300 employees and close or relocate 14 courthouses across the state. The budget cuts will leave the courts unable to maintain “adequate” court operations and will require the system to take “aggressive action” according to an internal web posting from SJC Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management  Robert Mulligan.

From Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

By Christina Pazzanese

Barring an 11th hour reprieve from Beacon Hill, Trial Court officials have announced they are moving ahead with plans to lay off hundreds of workers and to relocate or shutter 14 courthouses statewide.

The Administrative Office of the Trial Court said last week that, in light of a budget shortfall of nearly $25 million, between 250 and 300 employees of the department’s 6,864 workers will be laid off this year.

Staff will also be cut by another 289 who have opted to take early retirement, a voluntary layoff, an extended leave of absence or a reduction in hours.

The department’s fiscal 2011 budget of $534.8 million, adopted late last month, represents a 4 percent decline from fiscal 2010 and is perilously close to the worst-case financial scenario portended by the House budget proposal of $529 million.

A Boston Bar Association task force said last March if the Trial Court had to endure even a 2.46 percent budget cut from FY2010, as Gov. Deval L. Patrick had proposed, the courts would be teetering “at the edge of sustainability.”

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan said in a joint statement posted on the court’s internal website that the budget is significantly short of what is needed to maintain “adequate” court operations, requiring “aggressive action” to absorb the shortfall.

We must move quickly, since the impact of the deficit increases as time passes,” they said in the statement.

Mulligan’s office also announced it has instituted a new five-day mandatory unpaid furlough for chief probation officers, chief housing specialists, chief court officers and managers. A voluntary furlough is in place for all statutory positions, including judges, clerk-magistrates and registers.

Joan Kenney, a department spokeswoman, said all chief justices and the SJC justices have agreed to take part in the furlough program. Those furloughed will be compensated by receiving one vacation day in exchange for each day off the job.

Additionally, a hiring freeze first instituted in October 2008 will continue through June 30, 2011.

“Our goal is to achieve as much savings as possible before we must resort to layoffs. We recognize the uncertainty and anxiety that the budget crisis creates for court staff along with their added responsibilities resulting from significant understaffing,” Marshall and Mulligan stated, calling on workers to continue helping the courts manage during this “especially challenging situation.”

Doors closing

The ATOC also said 14 courthouses in 11 counties across the state, including Land Court, are on a short list for an accelerated consolidation, relocation or outright closing (see sidebar).

In October, Mulligan and his staff will move from leased offices at 2 Center Plaza in Boston to space inside the John Adams Courthouse. Other AOTC departments are also expected to move into the courthouse or other facilities.

The Court Relocation Committee met last week to discuss the proposed closures and develop a process for soliciting public input.

Mulligan stressed the list is “the beginning” of a process that will include future public hearings and that workers in those courts will not necessarily lose their jobs.

“As with prior relocations, the proposed court relocations or consolidations will not cause layoffs at those locations. Any layoffs required by budget cuts will be determined by a separate process,” Mulligan’s office said in a July 13 statement.

Shortly before the state budget was adopted in late June, Mulligan called the courts “woefully understaffed.” Court personnel had already been trimmed by 701 workers in the last two years, a nearly 10 percent margin. Eighty-one of 116 courts are operating at below 85 percent optimal staffing levels, while 51 courts are below 75 percent, he said.

Blood from a stone

Many in the legal community say they are waiting to hear from Mulligan about how, where and when the layoffs and courthouse closures will be implemented, but expect they will have a draconian effect on the state’s judiciary regardless.

“I think Chief Justice Mulligan and his staff have squeezed as hard as they can with what they have,” said Michael B. Keating of Foley Hoag in Boston, who chairs the Court Management Advisory Board. “The last thing he wants to do is layoffs. He may be at the point where he can no longer avoid doing it.”

If reduced staffing forces a cutback in the number of civil and criminal court sessions held, Keating said, it would be “very bad” for lawyers, but it would be especially

“harmful” for the District, Juvenile and Probate & Family courts, which provide significant social as well as legal services.

“I would hope that’s where they cut the least,” he said.

Before the announcement, Valerie A. Yarashus, president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, predicted that the cuts “are going to be dramatic and they’re going to be devastating. We’re going backwards where we don’t want to go.”

In May, the MBA released a report calling the court funding crisis “the perfect storm of a burgeoning caseload precisely at a juncture when the justice system is financially least capable of handling growth.”

The report noted that between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2009, trial court case filings were up 10.2 percent, while the Appeals Court saw its caseload climb 11.4 percent from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009.

Yarashus said further staffing cuts through layoffs, as well as court closures, have a “snowball effect” of creating an even larger backlog of work that makes the courts less efficient for everyone and fostering a climate that will continue to drive seasoned but overburdened workers into early retirement.

Losing those who have critical institutional knowledge, particularly during the hiring freeze, will only add another level of frustration for everyone who accesses the court system, she said.

Keating said the dire situation is a result of a very real fiscal crisis in the state and “a culture endemic to Massachusetts” where the executive and legislative branches of government view the judiciary as just another department or agency looking for more money.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate. They’re a co-equal branch of government and should be adequately funded,” Keating said.

Sen. Cynthia S. Creem, D-Newton, co-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said an expected $750 million in federal funding for Medicaid that never materialized, not politics, had a “huge impact” across the board on what the state has available to spend. Creem noted that the Trial Court’s 4 percent budget cut matches a 4 percent cut in local aid to cities and towns.

“Everything got hit pretty badly,” she said. “I sympathize. We’re all feeling the heat.”

Creem said while some legislators believe the judiciary is just another departmental mouth to feed – as evidenced recently by a failed push to move the CJAM’s office from Boston’s Government Center into the Charlestown District Court – it is not a widely held attitude, nor is it the reason for the Trial Court’s budget crisis.

Creem supported an unsuccessful bid to transfer full power over the Probation Department to Mulligan, a move that she said might have made a difference given that the approximately 2,200 probation workers make up one-third of state judiciary staff.

“I think that would’ve given the chief justice of administration and management an opportunity to go through the Probation Department and see if there’s waste,” said Creem, who voted against the budget in protest of the failed transfer bid. “That would’ve been a help.”

Courts slated to close, relocate

Administrative Office of the Trial Court Departments to move to other facilities including John Adams Courthouse

Berkshire County Berkshire Juvenile Court, North Adams: CLOSING

Bristol County Southeast Housing Court in New Bedford to “co-locate” with other courts
Essex County

Gloucester District Court: CLOSING

Franklin/Hampshire Counties Northampton Superior Court ceremonial courtroom and storage space, Housing Court ancillary space: CLOSING

Hampden County Appeals Court administrative office space in Springfield: CLOSING

Land Court Land Court to move to Suffolk County Courthouse

Middlesex County Framingham Juvenile Court to move to Marlborough District Court

Norfolk County Norfolk Superior Court Probation and Norfolk County Law Library to move to Registry of Deeds 
Norfolk Juvenile Court in Dedham to move to Stoughton District Court

Plymouth County Hingham District Court: CLOSING
Wareham District Court: CLOSING

Suffolk County Charlestown Division of Boston Municipal Court: CLOSING

Worcester County Leominster District Court: CLOSING
Westborough District Court: CLOSING

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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