BBA President Lisa Goodheart's Court Advocacy Day Message

Good morning.  On behalf of the Boston Bar Association: Thank you to Chief Justice Ireland and Chief Justice Mulligan and all of the judges. Thank you to the court staff across our state who continue to serve, in difficult conditions, to ensure access to justice for all. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to be here.

We are here to advocate – individually and collectively – for adequate funding for our state courts. We know that our work as lawyers would be in vain if our courts were not here to uphold the rule of law. We count on our state courts being here – to enforce the laws and the constitution, to protect public safety, to preserve individual liberties, and to resolve private disputes. It’s important to appreciate the scope of what’s at stake here, in terms of who is affected.  Our state courts affect not only the parties who come before them and the lawyers who advocate before them.  Our courts affect the whole fabric of our society in the Commonwealth. 

The reality is that just knowing that our courts are there when we need them affects people’s conduct in fundamental ways. We count on our courts to be there when we need them.  And the essential premise is that they will function at a very high level. When we arrive at our courthouses, we ask a lot of our courts.  We expect nothing less than the peaceful, fair and timely resolution of disputes covering every aspect of human experience -- family law, criminal matters, civil rights, business conflicts, and more. 

But it’s not just litigants who depend on the courts to be there and to be functioning well.  We lawyers know that all aspects of our legal system -- and really, all aspects of what people do on our society -- depend directly or indirectly on our courts being there and functioning well. Every time a business person signs a contract, they count on the fact that the courts will be available to enforce that deal in the event of a breach. Every time a person buys a home, they assume the courts will be there to vindicate their property rights, if necessary. 
All the wheels of commerce that turn in our Commonwealth every day do so on the basis of an expectation that people’s legitimate interests will be protected, and that their rights will be vindicated, by our courts, if need be. 

With that in mind, we need to consider the effects of underfunding our state courts. The erosion in the Judiciary’s budget that has characterized the past several years has brought the Trial Court to an unacceptable level of capacity. The effects have been cumulative and the impacts of years of underfunding have surfaced. The budget cuts over the last four fiscal years have resulted in the loss of more than 200 court officers. And when judges in criminal sessions are forced to 'borrow' court officers from civil sessions, those civil sessions grind to a halt.  This translates to wasted time spent waiting by litigants, witnesses and jurors, most of whom are eager to get back to their jobs and other commitments.   Every time that happens, it is a small tear in the fabric of our justice system, and it necessarily damages the confidence and the respect that all those who participate in our court proceedings have for the rule of law.

In the Probate and Family Court, for example, where emotions routinely run high, they have not only lost court officers, but also most of the law clerks needed to help the judges with their essential research and writing (which, by the way, must be done using antiquated computer equipment). No one should be surprised that an uncontested divorce can take almost a year. Backlogs resulting from inadequate staffing are now really being felt on the front lines by members of the public, who may arrive at our courthouses for a seemingly simple transaction, only to learn that the clerk's or register's office is closed while court staff struggle to catch up with paperwork.

It is not necessarily very exciting or glamorous to talk about paperwork backlogs and shortened hours at the clerk’s desks, or the logistics of moving prisoners in custody in and out of buildings, or most of the work that court staff-members do.  A lot of that work goes on behind the scenes, and it’s usually invisible to the public. But all of these seemingly mundane, everyday things – when you put them all together – really do matter.  This is the stuff of which justice is made.  It is all of these seemingly small things that enable a case to get to the point where a jury or judge is in position to hear the evidence and make an essential decision.  This is what constitutes the delivery of justice. And when our courts are deprived of essential resources, the result is damage to the delivery of justice. 

We are not over-dramatizing the situation.  We are not crying wolf.  We are recognizing the reality that underfunding over a period of several years has created what is now a crisis situation.  We need the Legislature to understand this. It's spelled out in our state Constitution that the judicial branch is not an agency or a department of our government.  It is the third branch of our government – co-equal with the executive and legislative branches. A well-functioning judicial branch is a constitutional imperative, not a luxury.  It must serve the public in good times and in bad.  Access to justice cannot be dependent on how our economy happens to be doing in any given year; it is a fundamental element of our society.  And we need to provide our courts with the essential funding they need in order to function properly.

So today, and throughout every step of the budget process, which will go on until June, we will be urging the Legislature to appropriate $593.9 million to fund the Trial Court.
Thank you.