THE STATE judiciary system has absorbed major budget cuts in recent years - so much so that Massachusetts Trial Court judges are warning that the system will grind to a halt without an infusion of cash. But what the court system needs at least as much is the ability to trim itself down to proper size.
For now, jurists say, the system is making do by cutting service. Judicial officials recently told the Globe they have restricted public access to some court offices in order for clerks to address backlogs. At some courthouses, ringing phones simply go unanswered. “It really is at the point now where we cannot continue to deliver justice,’’ said Robert Mulligan, chief justice for judicial administration and management.
Yet the court’s personnel woes are more a problem of unevenly distributed resources than of an absence of resources. The system supports 101 courthouses, some of which have marginal caseloads and many of which would function more efficiently if merged into larger regional facilities. Mulligan has managed to close or consolidate about 15 courthouses since 2003. But he has a long way to go. Maryland, for example, is roughly equal in population and size to Massachusetts. Yet it manages with little more than half the number of courthouses found here.
The Trial Court is seeking $32 million from the state’s supplemental budget. Its strongest argument is safety: the system is down 250 court officers from four years ago. The hiring freeze imposed in 2008 has certainly hurt the courts. But sympathy - and supplemental funds - should be measured carefully when dealing with a system that for many years was characterized by flat caseloads and rising personnel costs.
The Legislature should be willing to provide more money in exchange for an accelerated court closure schedule. But if anything, the pressure from legislators has been in the wrong direction. Even as they’ve cut the judicial budget, they’ve shown little appetite for closing courthouses in their own districts, especially ones that have served as a source of patronage jobs. Lawmakers might even be tempted to seek a freeze on court closures as a condition for additional funds. That would be the worst outcome of all, soaking taxpayers to maintain an inefficient system.
In the spring, a civilian administrator will likely be in place to oversee court finances and accounting under a recent court-reform law. That person will have an opportunity to weigh in on how many courthouses and court personnel are needed to ensure a safe, efficient, and courteous justice system. But it’s already clear that the judiciary needs fewer courthouses. The Legislature should neither interfere with the closings nor entertain outsized budget requests.