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Judges vow to shut 11 courts

Decry state’s budget, seek halt in appointments

By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 13, 2011

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The state’s top judges, angered by budget cuts approved Monday, urged Governor Deval Patrick yesterday to stop appointing new judges and said they have no choice but to close 11 courthouses and lay off employees.

In a strongly worded statement, Roderick L. Ireland, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management, said the budget Patrick signed jeopardizes the right of every person, guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution, to swift justice.

The request for a moratorium on judicial appointments was submitted in a separate letter sent to the governor by the seven justices of the Supreme Judicial Court, four of whom are Patrick appointees. After years of budget cuts, they said, the court system does not have enough support personnel for additional judges and would have to lay off three staff members for each judge appointed.

“We make this request . . . with great reluctance and deep regret,’’ the justices wrote. “The people of Massachusetts deserve better. But the fiscal jeopardy into which the operation of the Trial Court has been placed demands extraordinary action.’’

The governor’s legal counsel, Mark Reilly, issued a statement calling the judges’ pronouncements “confusing at best.’’ He rejected their request that the governor stop appointing judges.

“As of last week when the budget numbers were known, more than one trial court chief judge continued their active lobbying of our office to fill judicial vacancies,’’ Reilly said. “In light of that plea to appoint more judges, we are surprised by today’s claim that the courts cannot manage their fiscal affairs without this attempt to constrain the governor’s constitutional authority. We look forward to their explanation. In the meantime, the governor will continue to exercise the powers granted to him by the Constitution of this Commonwealth.’’

Judges have frequently threatened to close courthouses, but usually those warnings occur earlier in the budget process, when there is still time for the governor and Legislature to reverse proposed cuts.

But yesterday’s statements were issued after the budget had been signed into law. The judges insisted they had no other choice but to follow through on closings after losing $96 million, or almost 16 percent, of their funding in the last three years.

The trial court has lost 1,115 employees in four years, and more than 60 percent of the courts are staffed below the level necessary to ensure the prompt delivery of justice, the judges said.

Eleven of the state’s 101 courthouses, from the Berkshires to Boston to New Bedford, are slated to close under the judges’ plan. The judges warned of layoffs, as well, but did not specify how many court employees might lose their jobs.

“This decision will reverberate throughout government and certainly the Commonwealth,’’ said Martin W. Healy, general counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association. “This is an unprecedented measure.’’

The judges’ demand that Patrick stop appointing judges seemed likely to exacerbate the governor’s tense relationship with Ireland, whom Patrick elevated to chief justice late last year.

Ireland has confronted the governor on another politically charged issue, publicly opposing Patrick’s push to transfer control of the scandal-plagued Probation Department from the judiciary to the executive branch.

The judges’ promise to close courthouses seemed likely to anger lawmakers, many of whom zealously guard their local institutions. Although critics have called them patronage havens, the courthouses are considered important engines of economic activity in local communities.

The state high court has been studying the possibility of consolidating court functions for years and imposed a hiring freeze three years ago. The plan released yesterday says court employees and the functions they perform will be transferred from closed courthouses to those in surrounding communities.

“My court is thrown in there as a political football,’’ said Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat who accused the judges of targeting his local courthouse in Charlestown for closing because he is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees judges.

The judges have been threatening to close the Charlestown court for the last six or seven years, O’Flaherty said. But he argued that the courthouse, like others in the state, is vital to its neighborhood’s economy.

“I do think we have a crisis,’’ O’Flaherty said. “I disagree with the solution that is proffered by the court.’’

The Legislature often works with the governor to approve smaller midyear spending bills . But lawmakers, no matter how incensed by the closings, are not likely to be inclined to give the court system more money so soon after wrapping up the state budget, said Stephen M. Brewer, the Senate budget chief.

“We’re not arguing that the court is having some significant funding issues,’’ said Brewer, a Barre Democrat. “But at the State House, we don’t have printing presses for money.’’

Michael W. Morrissey, a former state senator who became Norfolk district attorney this year, said closing courthouses was short-sighted. He said moving criminal trials out of the Brookline court, for example, would threaten community programs that work closely with the court and the local police.

“It isn’t just a case of appearing in court,’’ Morrissey said. “It’s the layers of support you have around you.’’

Morrissey said the plan also fails to consider transportation problems people may face when they are forced to file paperwork or appear in far-flung courthouses. He said the justices should have worked to solve their budget problems more creatively before challenging Beacon Hill.

“You get more done when you work together and try to work through problems, instead of being confrontational and critical,’’ he said.

But Donald R. Frederico, president of the Boston Bar Association, said he was not surprised that the judges are pledging to close courthouses.

“They’re just at the breaking point,’’ he said. “At difficult economic times, a lot of programs and agencies have to be cut, but the courts have taken a disproportionately large share.’’

Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com; Levenson at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.