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Staff cuts slow course of justice in Trial Court

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 26, 2011

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Years of sustained budget cuts to the state Trial Court system are starting to reach what administrators called a visible breaking point, with the reductions becoming increasingly apparent in everyday public proceedings.

Just last week, for instance, a Suffolk Superior Court judge had to wait more than two hours for a clerk to arrive from another session before conducting public business, causing him to look at his caseload and vent, “I’ll tend to it, as soon as I can get a clerk.’’

This came in the same week that the Trial Court started to restrict public access hours in clerks’ offices at 38 courthouses across the state, to allow clerks to catch up on a backlog of paperwork without having to tend to people at the counter. They will not answer phone calls, either.

“It really is at the point now where we cannot continue to deliver justice,’’ said Robert A. Mulligan, chief justice for judicial administration and management for the Trial Court of Massachusetts. “We just don’t have enough people.’’

The cuts are part of the bigger budget woes the state has faced in the economic crunch over the last several years. With a loss of $70 million in funding during the last four years, court administrators have been scrambling to save. Courthouses have been closed and merged into others - a dozen other consolidations are currently under review - to reduce lease and other costs.

But court administrators say the more difficult cuts to absorb have been the reductions in staff. With a hiring freeze that has been in effect since 2008, the system has lost 1,167 employees since 2007 as a result of attrition. The court had 6,462 workers as of Sept. 1, making this the first time it has had fewer than 7,000 employees since 1997, according to the agency’s figures.

Court administrators say the system, which devotes 75 percent of its overall spending to payroll, is bound to see further staff cuts as they predict a shortfall in revenue this fiscal year, leaving the courts with $509.2 million, down from $535.9 million last year. The Trial Court received $583 million in 2008.

Paula M. Carey, chief justice for the 14 probate and family court divisions across the state, said her staff is so thin that certain jurisdictions will be disrupted if one person is out sick or on leave, and she has had to dispatch secretaries and other administrators to serve as a clerk for a session.

For every judge in Suffolk, for instance, there is only one clerk, leaving no one to handle the office counter. Carey said she reluctantly agreed to restrict public access hours in all of her divisions so that clerks can go back to processing cases that are more than a year old.

The probate and family court division is running at 68 percent of necessary staffing, according to an analysis by the courts, she said.

“We have to piece together two strings to keep ourselves afloat,’’ she said. “It seems to me no way to run the third branch of government, and it’s actually sad.’’

Daily, judges must wait for a clerk to staff a session, and often times it is a clerk who is unfamiliar with the caseload. Court sessions have been canceled so that a clerk can fill another session.

Judges have also had to postpone sessions because extra court officers were needed to boost security in another session.

“There’s more juggling going around, and every day we start with ‘who do we have, who’s coming in, who’s called in sick, what sessions do we have to staff, and how are we going to do it?’ ’’ said Gary Wilson, a magistrate clerk in Suffolk Superior Court and vice president of the Superior Court Clerk-Magistrate Association. “It’s a challenge every day.’’

As with nearly all other state departments, the Trial Court has been waging a losing battle with the Legislature for funding.

State Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, a lawyer and cochair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said that he is aware of the need for more funding, and the effect it is having on the courts and the public.

However, O’Flaherty said, the court system is competing for limited funding against other core services such as the schools, and health care, which have more support in the Legislature.

“The judiciary has made its case. We’re hearing and seeing the impact. It has not fallen on deaf ears,’’ O’Flaherty, a Democrat from Chelsea, said. But, “They have not been the only part of our government that has sustained serious cutbacks.’’

He said the appointment of a civilian administrator to oversee the court system’s finances and accounting, expected in the coming months and part of a reform package for the courts, could help to persuade other legislators of the need for more support.

Clerks and court officers themselves have appealed to the Legislature. And lawyers who deal with court staff are starting to take notice and show their frustrations: For instance, the Boston Bar Association’s quarterly publication, the Boston Bar Journal, is launching a series in its fall issue featuring accounts from lawyers and judges of their struggles with the system.

Carol Starkey, a private Boston-based lawyer whose practice spans from business litigation to criminal defense, said the cuts are affecting the flow of cases and thus adversely affecting the people who depend on the courts. She has had to wait 18 months for a judge’s order, not because it took that long to decide but because it took that long just to work through the backlog.

The people who lose out, Starkey added, are the people who depend on the courts, families before the housing court, and businesses in the civil court.

“We rely on the delivery of high-caliber justice from our courts, but we’ve got a system from the recent cuts where that is not possible,’’ she said. “There is not a person working within the state system who isn’t feeling that pinch and seeing this is a difficult situation that is only going to get more difficult. And that’s the frightening part of it, we only see it getting worse.’’

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.