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Brookline will fight to keep district court

Posted by Brock Parker  July 14, 2011 01:20 PM

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When Brookline District Court was on the chopping block to be closed last year, town officials said they heard rumors beforehand and had time to successfully lobby state officials to keep the court open.

But when the Massachusetts Trial Court announced this week that it plans to break up the Brookline courthouse by shifting criminal cases to Dedham and civil cases to Newton, town officials said they were caught off guard.

“We were taken entirely by surprise by the actions of the administrative justice,” said Selectmen Chairwoman Betsy DeWitt. “We thought this was resolved. We thought we had prevailed.”

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland and Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan announced Tuesday.that operations of the Brookline court and 10 other courts throughout the state will be relocated as a result of budget cuts.

The Brookline courthouse on Washington Street next door to the Brookline Police Department had initially been targeted for closure in 2010 as the Trial Court dealt with budget cuts and looked to close facilities with low case volumes. Of the 62 district courts in the state in 2009, Brookline was in the bottom five in criminal caseloads in the bottom 10 in the number of civil cases it handles.

This year a Court Relocation Committee has recommended moving criminal and civil cases out of the Brookline courthouse so the Norfolk Juvenile Court could move into the Brookline facility, said Joan Kenney, Supreme Judicial Court spokeswoman.

Kenney said Thursday that the move is designed to save the Trial Court from having to pay more than $674,000 in rent for the Norfolk Juvenile Court’s leased space in Dedham.

She said the relocations connected to the Brookline courthouse would all involve redeployment of employees, rather than layoffs.

Planning efforts are underway to prioritize the sequence of the relocations and to finalize the locations for the courts, Kenney said, and the Trial Court must also give the state Legislature 90 days notice.

But Brookline officials argue that keeping the criminal and civil functions in Brookline District Court is important to prevent the town’s police from having to spend half their work days driving to and from Dedham for court appearances and to shuttle prisoners.

“That is costly to us,” DeWitt said. “It takes our manpower off the streets.”

Brookline Police Chief Daniel O'Leary said the department must send two officers with prisoners to arraignments, and between court and commute time to Dedham, the officers would probably be gone for about three hours per trip.

For those reasons, O’Leary and selectmen successfully lobbied state legislators in 2010 to keep the court open. But this year, O'Leary said the town didn't hear about the Trial Court's proposed changes until this week--after Gov. Deval Patrick signed the state budget.

"This time around we had no indication," O'Leary said.

The chief and DeWitt said they will be speaking up to the Legislature and the Trial Court in an effort to stop the proposed changes for the courthouse.

“We’ll fight to the best of our abilities to keep this court open,” DeWitt said.

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