“A constitutional crisis”
Seven of the state’s top jurists say a constitutional crisis is brewing in Massachusetts, with legislatively-imposed budget cuts creating a court system that is undermanned, overwhelmed, and increasingly unsafe.
At a panel discussion late Thursday afternoon at the Boston Bar Association, the judges offered a peek inside a court system that is reeling from the loss through attrition of 1,272 employees, nearly a fifth of the workforce, since a hiring freeze was imposed in October 2008. The judges said layoffs could be in store if a House proposal earlier this week to cut spending by 2 percent survives the budget process.
Karyn Schier, chief justice of the Land Court, said she is so accustomed to being shorthanded that she now routinely calls out “All rise” when she enters her courtroom and turns on the recording device herself.
Paula Carey, chief of the Probate and Family Court, said staff shortages are having a ripple effect. Clerks shuttle from one clerk-less court to another. Judges use their own money to buy voice-recognition software because it’s the only way to get their decisions typed. And all the extra work leads more and more people to leave. Carey said 10 judges from the Probate and Family Court retired last year, but only two left because they reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.
“We are truly on the brink of a constitutional crisis,” she said.
Barbara Rouse, chief justice of the Superior Court, said the manpower shortage means paperwork moves more slowly, decisions take longer to write, and trials sometimes have to be postponed because there aren’t enough court officers to assure public safety. She said the postponements waste time and money because defendants and witnesses show up but are then told to go home.
Robert Mulligan, the Trial Court’s chief justice for administration and management, said he intends to start hiring court officers despite the hiring freeze. He said he will promote associate court officers into court officer positions and then replace the associate officers with new hires. He said the associate job pays less than $30,000 a year but he has already received 1,400 applicants.
Mulligan said how many court officers eventually get hired will depend on how well qualified the current associate officers are. “If I can get 100, I’ll take 100,” he said. Mulligan said he didn’t know exactly where the money will come from, but the consensus among the judges on the panel was that layoffs and court closings are the only way to shave costs. Mulligan said he must hire more people. “We can no longer run the third branch of government,” he said.
Courts across the country are scaling back, NPR reports, and concern about cutbacks in Massachusetts is nothing new. But Thursday’s panel, which included Supreme Court Justice Margot Botsford and Phillip Rapoza, chief justice of the Appeals Court, gave the issue a much higher profile.
Still, none of the jurists directly criticized the Legislature for failing to fund the courts adequately. Steven Pierce, the chief justice of the Housing Court and a former Republican lawmaker from Westfield, came the closest when he suggested the courts were being treated like an executive branch agency during the budget process. “The judicial branch is a fundamental part of government,” he said. “It’s not an agency.”
Despite an ongoing federal probe of legislative patronage at the Probation Department, which is part of the judicial branch, the Legislature continues to meddle in court affairs. Last year, the Legislature refused to permit court officials to close redundant courthouses, at least until new court administrator Harry Spence is on the job. Spence, who was in the audience, said he starts work Tuesday.
House leaders even continue to meddle in probation matters. In their budget proposal, House officials allowed court officials to transfer money between various accounts to cover deficiencies. But the House spending plan bars any transfer of more than 5 percent of the funds of the Probation Department. “It’s inexplicable,” Mulligan said when asked about the provision.
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