Judges’ planned closings anger other state officials

'There’s a mixed message that is coming out of the judicial leadership. They all need to get in a room and figure out what their message is. That’s my advice to them,' said Timothy P. Murray, lieutenant governor. "There’s a mixed message that is coming out of the judicial leadership. They all need to get in a room and figure out what their message is. That’s my advice to them," said Timothy P. Murray, lieutenant governor.
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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If the state’s top judges wanted to draw attention to their budget crisis, they succeeded.

A day after they vowed to close 11 courthouses and urged Governor Deval Patrick to stop appointing judges, it seemed everyone on Beacon Hill was seething.

Lawmakers were furious that courts in their districts had been targeted. Administration officials were incensed that judges wanted the governor to relinquish one of his most solemn constitutional duties.

But the judges stood firm, saying they did what they believe is necessary after losing almost 16 percent of their funding in the last three years, including a $24.2 million cut that Patrick signed into law Monday.

“I hope we can get over the initial surprise and anger and get down to the nitty-gritty of grappling with the problem, because it’s very real,’’ said Robert J. Cordy, associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. “It’s important that the governor understand that we can’t even support the judges we have in our courts now.’’

But the Patrick administration did not seem in a mood to confer quietly with the judges.

Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray reiterated that the governor will continue to make judicial appointments despite the judges’ request. He also pointed out that prominent judges had been lobbying the administration to fill judicial vacancies, as recently as last week.

“There’s a mixed message that is coming out of the judicial leadership,’’ he said. “They all need to get in a room and figure out what their message is; that’s my advice to them.’’

Many lawmakers, meanwhile, were angry at the judges for promising to close courthouses that they consider cherished community institutions.

Representative Garrett J. Bradley said the judges should have warned the House that the 11 courts could close before it approved its budget.

“My biggest frustration is that I’m completely blindsided by it,’’ said Bradley, a Democrat from Hingham, where the district court is slated to close. Bradley’s wife was recently appointed to a judgeship in Plymouth District Court, which will have to absorb the employees and operations from Wareham, another district court to be closed.

Cynthia Stone Creem and Bruce E. Tarr, two senators whose districts also include courthouses slated to close, invited lawmakers to a meeting today to plot a response.

Tarr said that simply closing 11 courthouses would not solve the massive budget crunch facing the judiciary.

“These things point to a larger problem than just keeping the courts open,’’ said Tarr, a Gloucester Republican. “It seems to me a symptom of a larger disease, and that disease could be the implosion of the court system.’’

House leaders said they also plan to discuss the court closings with Roderick L. Ireland, the chief justice of the SJC, and Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management.

“We’re obviously concerned,’’ said Brian Dempsey, the House budget chief, who called the judges’ request for a moratorium on judicial appointments “a bit extreme.’’

Dempsey said, however, that it is not clear if House lawmakers will fight to keep the courthouses open. “It’s a little bit early to indicate what resolution there could be, but we want to have a conversation,’’ he said.

But at least several of the closings may be inevitable.

“Some of them have to be closed,’’ said Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat. “Everybody’s budget is bad, and everyone shares.’’

Cordy said the court system simply cannot run 101 courthouses and take on new judges after losing 1,115 employees, including 250 court officers, through attrition and retirements since 2007.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in our trial courts, and we’ve not even begun the next round of cutbacks,’’ he said. “The loss of support personnel is very real and very dramatic and is going to get worse.’’

Mulligan said the closings will proceed after the court system gives the Legislature a required 90-day notification.

“These are not decisions we make lightly; they’re not political decisions,’’ Mulligan said. “They’re mandated by the fiscal situation we’re in.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.