THE STATE of Maryland, roughly equal in population and size to Massachusetts, manages to deliver justice with about half the 106 courthouses found here. Tradition and politics, not caseloads, often explain the existence of sundry courthouses. And it is proving to be an unsupportable model. It is time to determine the number and location of courthouses that can be closed or merged without interfering unduly with access to justice, especially when budget cuts are leading to inadequate staffing and curtailed sessions in the busier courts.
Five years ago, the state court system was "mired in managerial confusion," according to a special commission appointed by Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court. Caseloads were flat from 1992 to 2004, while costs and personnel spiked. Significant improvements have taken place since then under the supervision of Robert Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management of the trial courts. Last year, these courts disposed of 89 percent of their cases within accepted time standards - an improvement over 74 percent in 2006. Improved case management and a hiring freeze in October 2008 have led to greater accountability and efficiencies.
But the sheer number of courthouses limits the savings. Mulligan has moved to close or consolidate just four courts in the past five years - Ipswich, Ware, Winchendon, and the juvenile court in Lawrence. There are other good candidates. And as cash-strapped state officials contemplate closing facilities ranging from State Police barracks to mental health institutions, he acknowledges that courts can't get a pass.
"We can't sustain that number of courthouses," says Mulligan. "There's no question about it."
Right now Mulligan is looking mainly at the roughly 40 leased courthouses in a trial court system that includes district, superior, probate, juvenile, housing, and land courts. His first priority is to reduce the $38.5 million spent annually for rent and upkeep. But the system needs to be analyzed broadly to determine if the workloads in the state's 62 district courts, whether housed in leased or state-owned space, support their existence.
Is it necessary, for example, to operate district courts in Orleans, Barnstable, and Falmouth on Cape Cod? Could courthouse operations in Pittsfield, Great Barrington, or North Adams be consolidated into two facilities in the western part of the state? The jurisdiction of the trial court trumps county lines, so why not operate a single courthouse for Brookline and Newton, where court personnel dealt with a combined total of fewer than 2,000 criminal filings last year?
In 2007, a large new courthouse opened in Worcester within reasonable driving distance to the district courts in Clinton and Uxbridge, each of which dealt with only about 2,000 criminal filings in 2008. And what of the Natick court, which dealt with only 1,151 such complaints? Couldn't that business be conducted in Framingham? The list goes on.
In 2003, the Romney administration floated a trial balloon to scrap a court system it called "frozen in the horse-and-buggy era." Legal advisers proposed closing eight district courts and establishing a system of regional justice centers where most residents would live within a radius of 15 miles from a courthouse. It didn't fly, especially when the administration targeted the underutilized Charlestown courthouse in the home district of Representative Eugene O'Flaherty, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. O'Flaherty now says legislators will fight just as hard to retain the courts in their districts. And state lawmakers control the judiciary's budget.
The situation calls for an independent evaluation similar to the nonpartisan federal base-closing commission that analyzed the efficiency and geographic distribution of military facilities. Such an effort would bump up against a long history of patronage hiring in the courts and dozens of statutorily-created clerk magistrate positions with lifetime appointments. It would be a sensible task for the state's independent Court Management Advisory Board, which includes business and government leaders. Other possibilities include bar associations, law schools, or research institutes. Such an undertaking could have national significance. Currently, there are no standards on how many courthouses are needed to serve a population or geographic area, according to the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts.
Meanwhile, budget writers in the Legislature will need to deal with the uneven distribution of resources in the court system. Mulligan says that some courts are facing drastic delays in updating child-support orders, processing small-claims cases, and other civil matters. The problem is particularly acute at the understaffed land court, where foreclosure cases now take six months instead of the usual six weeks.
The courthouse on Main Street may not be obsolete. But in an age of modern communication and transportation, it is fair to ask just how much public funding is needed to support such structures.