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Mass. justices: Budget woes could close courts

By Steve Leblanc
Associated Press / July 12, 2011

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BOSTON—The state's top justices warned Tuesday that budget cuts approved by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick will force them to move ahead with plans to consolidate a dozen courthouses across Massachusetts.

Roderick Ireland, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and Robert Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management, said in a statement that the state's trial courts have seen their funding cut by almost 16 percent since the 2009 fiscal year.

The reduction has translated into a loss of more than 1,100 employees, leaving more than 60 percent of courts severely understaffed and threatening to undermine the quality of justice in Massachusetts, the justices said.

They said they've already notified Patrick, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray that the $520 million court budget approved for the fiscal year that began July 1 will force courthouse consolidations.

The budget represents a cut of more than $24 million compared to the funding for the trial court system in the fiscal year that just ended, Ireland and Mulligan said. They said the budget "also contains assumptions about revenue collections that are not obtainable."

"In sum, the Fiscal Year 2012 budget will ... jeopardize the right of every person, guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution, to have recourse to the courts and obtain civil and criminal justice `completely and without denial, promptly and without delay,'" the justices wrote.

The justices have also asked Patrick to consider placing a freeze on judicial and clerk magistrate appointments to help the courts save money.

Patrick's chief legal counsel, Mark Reilly, called the letter "confusing at best" and rejected the justices' call for a moratorium on judicial appointments.

Reilly said some judges were actively lobbying the governor to fill court vacancies as recently as last week.

"We are surprised by today's claim that the courts cannot manage their fiscal affairs without this attempt to constrain the governor's constitutional authority," Reilly said in a written statement.

"In the meantime," Reilly said, "the governor will continue to exercise the powers granted to him by" the state constitution.

Patrick and legislative leaders have said the lingering effects of the national recession have forced rounds of deep cuts across state government, and the courts are not immune.

The most recent budget, signed Monday by Patrick, is one of the tightest in recent memory, in part because federal stimulus money is drying up, the money left in the state's rainy day account is limited and lawmakers are reluctant to push through another tax increase.

"This budget reflects tough decisions and sacrifice across state government," Patrick said as he signed the $30.6 billion state spending plan.

Ireland and Mulligan said they're aware of the fiscal crunch. They said the courts have "acted prudently, responsibly and aggressively in realizing operational savings in every way possible during the past three years."

Despite those efforts, the new budget "will require even more drastic measures, including layoffs, court relocations and consolidations, and curtailed operations and services," the justices said.

The justices said they plan to file statutorily required reports with the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means outlining the timing of the planned consolidations.

Berkshire Juvenile Court, the Charlestown Division of the Boston Municipal Court, Framingham Juvenile Court, New Bedford Housing Court, Norfolk Juvenile Court and district courts in Gloucester, Hingham, Leominster, Brookline, Westborough, Wareham and Westfield would be consolidated into other courts under the plan.

It's not the first time the state's justices have threatened to shutter courthouses.

Plans to consolidate a dozen courts last year were put on hold following an outcry from local officials.

This time, the justices say the consolidations are moving forward and other closings may follow.