American Justice System Facing Economic Crisis
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Bay State's top jurist says courts are in crisis
SJC's Marshall warns of 'painful choices'
"A perfect storm of circumstances threatens much of what we know, or think we know, about our American system of justice," said Margaret H. Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court . (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File)
Globe Staff / February 17, 2009
The economic downturn could have a devastating impact on the American justice system as courts are forced to lay off employees and cut down on court hours, Massachusetts ' top judge said yesterday. I shall be blunt: Our state courts are in crisis," Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall told members of the American Bar Association at its midyear meeting at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. "A perfect storm of circumstances threatens much of what we know, or think we know, about our American system of justice."
Marshall said courts across the country are reviewing their budgets and making "painful choices."
New Hampshire's judicial branch will halt civil and criminal jury trials for a month to save on per diem payments to jurors. It will also postpone filling seven of the state's 59 vacant judgeships this year. Budget cuts in Florida have left 280 court employees without jobs and more layoffs are expected. In Maine , the courts have loosened security, no longer staffing magnetic security machine checkpoints at local courthouses.
Governor Deval Patrick has proposed a $560 million Massachusetts court trial budget, a 7.5 percent reduction to its fiscal 2009 budget of $583 million, according to Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Judicial Court . The state's trial court employs more than 7,500 people, including 379 judges. Those cuts do not affect the Supreme Judicial Court or the state appeals court staff.
Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, said the budget plan has left many court employees in his district, which covers Greater Boston, bracing for possible layoffs.
"Our budget is 90 percent or more payroll and rent. We've run a very lean operation for years, but it's hard to see how we can get much leaner," Wark said yesterday.
Proposed cuts "will basically put us back to 2001 [staffing] levels," he said.
The cuts come just as the state had made acclaimed changes to the system. The overhaul was five years in the making, and came after a blue ribbon commission said the state's court system was failing the public. The system improved efficiency, analyzing staffing and tracking how long it took to resolve cases. A system of evaluating judges, done by lawyers, court employees, and jurors, was put in place.
The overhaul helped shrink the number of unresolved cases from 177,000 in 2006 to 73,500 in 2008. The National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg , Va. , honored Robert A. Mulligan, who oversaw the reforms as chief justice of administration and management, with the 2008 Distinguished Service Award for his efforts.
Valerie A. Yarashus, president-elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said yesterday that the proposed cuts will present the courts with new challenges.
Courts may have to close civil or criminal sessions or consider consolidating. Those changes could reverberate through the system, she said, slowing the courts down again.
"What's particularly frustrating is that the court has worked so hard, particularly in the last five years, to make progress on the backlog," she said. "We want to be really careful . . . not to undo that."
In a statement issued jointly with Mulligan in January, Marshall said the courts "must apply close attention and diligence to the collection of revenues for probation supervision and filing fees."
And she noted that about half the state's courthouses are staffed at "below minimal levels" as determined by an objective national staffing model. Marshall said the Massachusetts trial court cut $22 million from its current budget last fall at the governor's request.
Marshall did not speak specifically yesterday about Massachusetts ' planned cutbacks, but she implored the lawyers in attendance to press political leaders for funding.
"Where do the legal meanings of such elemental concepts as 'birth,' 'death,' and 'family' take shape?" she asked. "Largely in state courts. State courts decide whether the tenant must vacate, whether the criminal defendant was properly charged, who gets custody of the children, who complies with zoning laws, whether the worker is entitled to compensation, or an injured patient to recover from her doctor."
She quoted legal scholar Reginald Heber Smith, calling the denial of justice "the shortcut to anarchy."
"These are words that resonate deeply with me," she said.
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