BOSTON — Citing years of budget cuts and unsustainable staff shortages, court officials announced yesterday that 38 Massachusetts courthouses — including Newburyport — will implement reduced hours for clerks and registers beginning Sept. 19, a plan that prompted an outcry from the legal community.
"Our severe staffing reductions require an adjustment in some public office hours so that employees can more effectively serve those who depend on the courts," said Robert Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management of the Trial Court. "Court staff have made remarkable efforts to deliver timely justice during three years of significant budget and staff cuts. However, almost one-third of courts now need some uninterrupted time to address backlogs and reduce delays, as already done by courts in other states."
Lawyers called the proposed reductions "unacceptable" and urged members of the bar to contact state lawmakers to restore funding to the courts.
"The budget cuts to our state courts over the last three years have resulted in staff reductions of historic proportions, already causing unacceptable delays in many of the court divisions," said Lisa Goodheart, president of the Boston Bar Association, in a statement. "Despite the unwavering commitment of our judges and remaining staff to soldier on — making diligent efforts to do more with less — we can no longer pretend that it's business as usual. The access to justice that we have taken for granted under our state constitution will be seriously compromised, inflicting real pain on our most vulnerable citizens."
Gov. Deval Patrick has sparred with court leaders over the severity of their funding shortfall, questioning their plea for additional funds and a moratorium on judicial appointments while some judiciary leaders were quietly lobbying to fill vacant judgeships.
In a $400 million supplemental budget that Patrick filed in August, he opted against providing any of the $32 million that Mulligan and other court officials have sought to stave off a series of court closures, layoffs and other reductions they said would be necessary at current funding levels.
Last week, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, co-chair of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said they noted the governor's decision to exclude court funding in his supplemental budget. Tarr said he views the Legislature, which may adjust the governor's supplemental budget plan, as a last resort to protect the courts.
"The governor's silence in the filing of the (supplemental budget) indicates he's not willing to start an initiative," Tarr said.
Yesterday, Jay Gonzalez, Patrick's top budget aide, defended the supplemental budget, noting that it primarily targeted spending for items that are "not expected to be reoccurring."
"Consequently, we targeted virtually all of such revenues to rebuild the rainy day fund and make onetime investments in job creation and economic growth," Gonzalez said in a statement to the News Service. "While a limited portion of these funds were allocated to address critical cuts to safety net program serving our most vulnerable citizens, it would not be prudent to use them to restore general budget cuts given the current fiscal constraints that we all must live within."
Court officials say the proposed reduction in hours won't affect court sessions and that access to all offices will be available "for emergency matters."
"This reduction in counter and telephone hours will provide uninterrupted time for staff to prepare cases for court sessions and execute court orders, as well as to complete filing, docketing, scanning and other case processing," according to the judiciary's announcement. "The decision to reduce hours at some locations means that during the specified hours staff will be unavailable to answer general telephone inquiries or to assist the public in the clerk's office. Telephone messages and signage at each location will provide information about the adjusted hours and emergency access information. The judicial response system which provides round-the-clock coverage for emergency situations will be unaffected."
Starting Sept. 19, the reductions include fewer counter hours and phone coverage in Attleboro, Barnstable, East Brookfield, Fall River, Framingham, Haverhill, Ipswich, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Natick, Newburyport, Palmer, Somerville, Springfield, Stoughton, Taunton, Uxbridge, Waltham, Westborough, Woburn and Wrentham district courts.
The Western Division of the state Housing Court will see its counter and phone service limited and sessions canceled in Northampton, Pittsfield and Greenfield in the first week of every month. The Springfield session of the Juvenile Court and the Land Court will have restricted phone and counter services. All divisions of the Probate and Family Court will have restricted hours after 3 p.m. on weekdays.
Court officials noted that they have cut about 1,167 positions from the staff since 2007, a 15 percent reduction that has already led to a backlog of matters. In addition, their funding fell from a peak of $605 million in 2008 to about $519 million this fiscal year.
In July, after Gov. Patrick signed a state budget that slashed court funding, Mulligan and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland announced plans to close 12 of 101 courthouses and relocate their functions to other facilities.