Dispelling 4 Myths About Court Funding

Recent coverage in the Boston Herald of the BBA and MBA’s Court Advocacy Day at the State House evoked a compendium of misinformed commentary on how to solve the problem of an underfunded Massachusetts Trial Court.  Issue Spot felt compelled to present the facts and dispel the myths.

Myth #1 – The judiciary and court staff received an across the board 9% pay increase

Not true! Salary schedules for management employees have been unchanged since 2004 and salaries for judges and clerks have remained unchanged since 2006.  Also, most managers and judges took a five-day furlough in 2010 to ensure that budget cuts would not force layoffs.

As for the 9% pay increase…Because of the fiscal crisis, no union employees of the Trial Court received the increases to which they were legally entitled under collective bargaining agreements. In 2010, Trial Court union employees were being paid on the same salary schedule as in 2007. In 2011, increases negotiated for court officers and probation officers went into effect. They received an increase which was consistent with the increases negotiated for employees in other state agencies. In addition, the Trial Court retroactively paid salary increases negotiated several years prior for clerical employees.

Myth #2 – Massachusetts judges work minimal hours

Issue Spot will leave the issue of salaries for another time but, for the record, Massachusetts judges’ rank 47th among judicial salaries. The notion that our judges work less than forty hours a week is just plain false.  Not to mention that, in recent years, filings in Massachusetts have increased – especially in cases of bankruptcy, eviction, domestic abuse, etc. – while judiciary staff has been decreased.  Judges have fewer law clerks to assist with research and to help prepare decisions which directly impacts their ability to deliver decisions in a timely manner. The extended backlogs in approximately forty of the state’s courthouses have forced clerks and registers to reduce public hours of operation in order to get caught up on paperwork.

Myth #3 – State workers are being cut, so should the number of judges

Some background about our state court judges and their staff…The number of authorized judicial positions is set by statute and those appointments are made by the Governor.  At any given time there are unfilled judgeships. Currently there are 25 judicial vacancies.

The judiciary is not immune from a shrinking staff.  Since 2008, the Massachusetts Trial Court has had a strict hiring freeze that has not only prevented the expansion in the number of positions, but has also kept positions vacant when staff leave. Today, there are 1,316 fewer court employees than in July 2007.

Myth #4 – Gas Prices Are Correlated with Funding for the Courts

Taxachusetts01 lamented taxes and the rising cost of gas, implying that gas taxes are used to fund the courts.

Connecting the budgets of other state agencies, departments or branches to funding for the judiciary defies all logic. For the most part, state revenue from gas taxes is earmarked for transportation funding. While Issue Spot can empathize with frustration over gas prices, it has no bearing on the judiciary’s budget (or almost any other state entity).

As we wait for the House of Representatives to file their budget next week, we urge the Legislature to appropriate $593.9 million for the Trial Court.  The reality is that our state courts need this money in order to function properly.

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