Court budget falls short, but reaction is muted

Officials say it is still early in the budget process

THE STATE’S COURT SYSTEM did not get a lot of loving in the House budget.

The state’s trial court is asking for what it calls a “maintenance budget” of $589.5 million for the coming fiscal year, an increase of about $28.5 million over the current year’s spending level. The governor, in his budget proposal, offered $577.5 million and the House last week came in at $567.8 million.

Court officials are clearly disappointed, but their response has been muted so far. In a joint statement, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland, Trial Court Chief Justice Robert Mulligan, and Court Administrator Harry Spence said the House proposal is “less than what the courts need to continue the modernization process underway.” But the officials said it is still early in the budget process, noting that Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, is going to file amendments to the House budget that would add $21.6 million in funding to the courts. O’Flaherty could not be reached for comment.

The mild response from court officials is in sharp contrast with the alarm that greeted the House’s budget proposal for the courts last year and the strong statements made by Ireland during budget hearings in February. “I know that you’re accustomed to hearing everyone come through and say, ‘We need more money,’’’ Ireland told lawmakers. “Well, we need more money, but we’re not a state agency. And I want to emphasize that with you. We’re a branch of government. In theory, we’re an independent branch of government.”

A group of judges during budget deliberations a year ago voiced similar concerns about the court’s budget. “We are truly on the brink of a constitutional crisis,” said Paula Carey, chief of the Probate and Family Court.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Since July 1, 2007, trial court staffing has fallen from 7,629 to 6,290, a 17.5 percent decline. The clerk offices at 36 courthouses are currently operating on reduced hours because of limited manpower. The court’s maintenance budget proposal would add 160 workers and fully fund collective bargaining agreements with union workers.

Court officials last year were proposing courthouse consolidations, but that talk has subsided for now. “All aspects of courts operations are being discussed as part of the trial court’s strategic planning efforts,” said court spokeswoman Joan Kenney.