Essential to our Mission: Funding the Judiciary

Amid all the talk of civil legal aid thanks to the buzz created by our Investing in Justice report, we wanted to take a moment to examine one of the BBA’s other long-term priorities, the court system.  Advocacy for the courts has long been at the top of our agenda, as it so clearly fits into our mission – advancing the highest standards of excellence for the legal profession, facilitating access to justice and serving the community at large.  The courts are absolutely essential to all three of those efforts and of course make up one of our three co-equal branches of government.  BBA President Julia Huston emphasized all of this in her speech last week at an SJC event for bar association presidents, which you can read more about in next week’s Let the Record Show.

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, the Trial Court is well on its way to implementing its strategic plan and has long maintained the high level of justice to which people in Massachusetts are accustomed.  With recent advancements such as court service centers, specialty courts, and the increased use of technology, it is easy to forget that just a few years ago the courts were in severe trouble.  Taking a huge funding hit in the Great Recession, the courts are only just emerging from some of the toughest times they have ever faced.  Some key information on these struggles (even more available here):

  • Trial Court staffing levels are still 16.5% lower than they were in FY08, dropping from 7,565 to 6,316. Clerical (26.7%) and probation (32.5%) positions have each plummeted since 2001.  This is a major problem as both positions are critical to the smooth functioning of the justice system.  In particular, probation officers are now tasked with doing more than ever before.  This is due in large part to current social sciences research demonstrating that probation supervision, when properly administered, can be more effective at reducing recidivism than incarceration.  However, with such low staffing levels, probation officers are pushed to their limits.  With ever expanding caseloads they struggle to give all their probationers the time and oversight they need.  Limiting the Trial Court budget not only hurts probationers, who receive less individualized attention, but also creates a potential public safety crisis.
  • Reduced funding and staffing levels have decreased the amount of service courts can provide. In 2011, due to insufficient staffing in roughly 40 clerks’ offices, courts began limiting their public hours of operation.  The hours reduction was required so that court staff could address backlogs and process new business, prepare cases for court sessions, and complete case reviews, docketing, and case processing.  While the reduced public hours scheme allowed the courts to limp along, it was not without an attendant reduction in access to justice for the public.  Such measures can save money, but they also place a burden on the public, reducing access and the courts’ physical presence in the community.  The courts were unable to resume full functionality until September of 2013, and without continued funding to retain current staff, it may become more difficult to maintain courthouses.
  • Shoestring budgets can limit the courts’ ability to build on successfully-implemented innovations. To cite two recent examples, specialty courts and programs such as HOPE/MORR, an intensive probation model that has been proven effective at reducing recidivism by providing immediate short term sanctions for probation violations, are wonderful, but not free.  Limited resources have also curtailed the expansion for Court Service Centers, which help self-represented litigants navigate the justice system, and limited language access programs, meaning non-English speakers may face even more challenges in presenting their cases.  Finally, a lack of funding has delayed technology deployment such as e-filing and digital document preservation services as well as electronic public records access.

So where are we now?  The Trial Court requested $642.4 million as a maintenance budget (the amount required to continue normal service) and offered up a number of additional “modules” (optional items to help bolster innovation, with funding tied to each specific program).  The Governor’s budget, which generally level funded nearly all line-items in an effort to fix a $1.8 billion deficit, provided only $603.3 million for the Trial Court.  The Courts responded with a statement explaining that this funding amount would jeopardize the jobs of roughly 550 employees and severely limit its ability to deliver justice.

The House Ways & Means Committee provided a substantial increase over the Governor’s proposal at $620.4 million.  After its members adopted a floor amendment for an additional $2 million, the final House budget for the Trial Court was $623.0 million.  While we were pleased to see $20 million more in the House over the Governor’s budget, this funding level would likely result in disruptions in court operations and services.

With the Senate set to release its Ways & Means budget next week, we are hoping to see further increases on that side, with $628.4 million being the minimum necessary to maintain current staff levels, though additional funding for modules would allow those important programs to move forward.  There is a possibility that the Trial Court budget will be before the Conference Committee which will ultimately determine the final funding amount from the Legislature.  After that it’s on to the Governor who will have ten days to review the budget.  He can approve or veto the entire budget, veto or reduce specific line items, veto outside sections or submit changes as an amendment for legislative consideration.  Finally the Legislature has the chance to override any Governor’s veto with a 2/3 vote in each branch.

There are still a number of steps left in the budget process, but the end is fast approaching.  We ask that you take a moment this week or next to contact your State Senator (Don’t know who that is? Look them up here) and urge him or her to support appropriate funding for the courts.  We will, as always, continue to advocate for court funding and keep you updated on the latest budget developments.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association