Pre Court Advocacy Day, BBA President Says Underfunded Trial Court Has Real World Impact

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In anticipation of Massachusetts State Court Advocacy Day on Monday, March 19 at 11 a.m. at the Grand Staircase at the State House, Boston Bar Association President Lisa C. Goodheart today exhorted lawyers and others concerned to lobby their legislators for a $593.9 million appropriation for the Massachusetts Trial Court for the fiscal year that starts on July 1, 2012:

"Every business day, some 42,000 people arrive at Massachusetts courthouses to have their matters heard and get their business done. To appreciate the scope of this, imagine the combined populations of the Back Bay, the North End, and Beacon Hill showing up every day in search of justice.

When we arrive, 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.

It's spelled out in our state Constitution: the judicial branch is co-equal with the executive and legislative branches of our government. Yet the Massachusetts Trial Court is chronically underfunded, and the resulting impact on the public gets more painful by the day.

Turn on your television to watch national coverage of 'courtroom melees'.  These are not isolated incidents, but regular occurrences.  Do you notice how many court officers it takes to break up a brawl between the family of a victim and the alleged perpetrator?  Think about something as basic as a motion hearing involving four alleged gang members where keeping even a semblance of security takes five court officers.  Just as important, though less obvious, is the fact that significant staffing resources must be expended on countless potential disruptions that never happen because attentive court officers are able to defuse brewing tensions before they get out of hand.  And keep in mind that the need for adequate numbers of well-trained court officers is only heightened by the fact that the security equipment needed to prevent the entry of weapons into the courtroom is dangerously obsolete in many courthouses.

Sadly, budget cuts over the last four fiscal years have resulted in the loss of more than 200 court officers. When judges in criminal sessions are forced to 'borrow' court officers from civil sessions, those civil sessions come to a screeching halt. This means unnecessary time spent waiting by litigants, witnesses and jurors, most of whom are eager to get back to their jobs.

The Probate and Family Courts, where emotions routinely run high, have not only lost court officers, but also most of the law clerks needed to help judges with their research and writing, which must be done using antiquated computer equipment.  There are indirect but very significant impacts, too.  The worsening lack of resources and grinding conditions inevitably take a toll on the years of service that many hard-working judges are able to give, and likewise cause too many talented and successful lawyers to forego the pursuit of judicial service altogether.  No one should be surprised that an uncontested divorce can take almost a year.

Backlogs resulting from inadequate staffing are now being felt on the front lines by the public. Imagine taking time off from work 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 paper work.

As the Boston Bar Association noted in its 2011 report, Justice on the Road to Ruin, 'the judiciary is not a state agency whose capacity to function can expand or contract depending on changes in public policy and available resources. . . .[T]he Commonwealth [has an] obligation to support an essential branch of government. The erosion in that support that has characterized the past several years has brought the Trial Court to an unacceptable level of capacity and must be reversed.'

The Boston Bar Association encourages its members to participate in Court Advocacy Day, and urges the Legislature to appropriate $593.9 million to the Trial Court for FY 2013."

The Boston Bar Association is a non-profit, voluntary membership organization of 10,000 attorneys drawn from private practice, corporations, government agencies, legal aid organizations, the courts, and law schools. It traces its origins to meetings convened by John Adams, the lawyer who provided pro bono representation to the British soldiers prosecuted for the Boston Massacre and went on to become the second president of the United States.