House goes after judge’s office space

Could force move to lesser quarters

An exterior view of the Trial Court's current location at Two Center Plaza. An exterior view of the Trial Court's current location at Two Center Plaza. (wendy maeda/globee staff)
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / May 7, 2010

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The Massachusetts House is trying to force the state’s chief administrative judge and his staff to vacate their rented office space in Downtown Boston and move to more cramped, dingy quarters above Charlestown District Court, in what critics say is political payback aimed at the judicial branch.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo quietly tucked an amendment into the House budget last week that directs Robert A. Mulligan, the chief justice for administration and management, or CJAM, to terminate the lease at Two Center Plaza by January and take up new residence in Charlestown’s City Square.

If it becomes law, the budget provision would relocate Mulligan, who oversees Massachusetts courts, from offices near the John Adams Court House to a more remote location across the Charles River. There was no debate or discussion about the measure on the House floor.

DeLeo argues that the state would save more than $3 million a year because Mulligan’s staff would be moved to state-owned property and no longer have to pay rent.

“With the CJAM paying $2.8 million for rent in FY ’10 and $3.3 million in FY ’11, the benefits of moving to a less costly, publicly owned space are all but self-evident,’’ DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell said in a statement. The speaker, who blocked an attempt during last year’s budget debate to force Mulligan out of his leased space, declined to be interviewed.

But sources in the Legislature and the judiciary suggested that House leaders may have had other motivations. The day lawmakers took up their budget plan, a special state commission on court management put a critical report on the desks of House and Senate leaders. The report blasted a legislative move almost a decade ago to strip judges of control over court personnel, including probation officers and clerks, saying it had led to a dysfunctional, patronage-laden system.

The budget amendment was sponsored by state Representative Michael F. Rush, a West Roxbury Democrat who is at personal odds with Mulligan and the judiciary over the treatment of his father, the recently retired chief probation officer at the West Roxbury District Court, legislative colleagues and court sources said. Rush did not return calls for comment.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Legislature’s relationship with the judiciary.

The dust-up over office space reflects longstanding tensions, built up over more than a decade, between the judicial and legislative branches, an issue that has raised serious concerns in the Massachusetts legal community over the separation of powers. Lawyers and others have accused legislators of micromanaging the judiciary and forcing patronage hires onto its payroll.

“It is an exercise in pique and petty retaliation,’’ said Harvey Silverglate, a leading civil rights lawyer from Cambridge who himself has challenged Beacon Hill leadership in the past.

Mulligan, who would not speculate on the House leadership’s motivation, said he has negotiated with the current landlord to knock $600,000 off the rent, and has moved a number of staff members and operations to both the nearby John Adams Court House and Edward Brooke Court House. He said he saved another $1.5 million in lease negotiations and space reductions throughout the state last year.

“I would certainly like to be in state-owned space,’’ Mulligan said, but he added that the “intelligent thing’’ was to remain at Center Plaza, in part because it would be costly to move and renovate the new space.

An assessment by Mulligan’s office of the Charlestown space focuses on only the mostly abandoned third floor of the courthouse, the only available space unless the court is closed. It describes the area as being “in a condition from poor to extremely hazardous,’’ with a leaky roof and windows, deteriorating masonry, and a damaged floor; renovations could cost up to $18 million.

DeLeo insisted his motives are purely fiscal. Through Gitell, he rejected the notion the lawmakers cannot interfere in the budgeting for the courts. “The Legislature’s ability to safeguard public dollars is rooted in the state Constitution,’’ Gitell said.

Indeed, the judiciary is often handcuffed when it comes to battling lawmakers. Legislators set judges’ salaries and dictate the budgets for the courts, including the number of personnel assigned to court houses. The Legislature has tried to dictate judicial office space in the past.

In 1995, the Senate successfully pushed through a budget rider, also without debate, that blocked then-Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Paul Liacos from using an office at the district court near his Peabody home. Liacos had fallen out of favor after joking disparagingly about the two legislative leaders at the time, Senate President William M. Bulger and House Speaker Charles F. Flaherty, at a Boston Bar Association event.

In another well-known case, Bulger infamously slashed the Housing Bourt budget and demoted its chief justice, George Daher, after Daher ignored his patronage demands in 1981.

Mulligan has generally gotten on well with most legislative leaders, particularly in the Senate. The Senate once blocked then-House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran’s move to shut down the leased suite and move Mulligan’s offices outside Boston after city officials argued that the court office provided an anchor for the Center Plaza complex. At the time, Finneran was furious over the SJC’s earlier threat to force the sale of his office furniture to help finance the Clean Elections law, which he had fought.

Silverglate said the level of legislative involvement is particularly disturbing considering the history of the system.

“You’re talking about the oldest continuing tribunal in the hemisphere,’’ he said. “Seeing it so degraded by a Legislature that is obsessed by patronage and vindictiveness makes you want to cry.’’

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