Bar News - March 9, 2007
Chief Justice to Legislature: Court System Is under “Great Strain”
By: Dan Wise
Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr., addressing a joint session of House and Senate lawmakers on Feb. 21, made a detailed pitch for increasing the budget and for specific legislation affecting the judicial branch, saying that the courts are “laboring under great strain” as they work with limited resources to try to keep the administration of justice timely and efficient.
While acknowledging the progress made since his last formal address to lawmakers in 2005, Broderick cited four major challenges that are facing the court system which need to be addressed:
Pro Se Litigants
Foremost is the impact of the growing number of pro se litigants on the smooth functioning of the courts. The increasing number of litigants who represent themselves in the court system requires the staff to spend time, either in the clerk’s office or on the phone, explaining the court process to them. “It’s not their fault—it’s just our reality. The result is delay, a decline in staff morale, and a legal community and client base increasingly frustrated by the time it takes to process and forward court orders which are so important to their lives,” Broderick said.
Slow Pace of Technology Installation
Rollout of the judicial branch electronic case management system has been completed in 13 district court locations, but, Broderick said, many small law firms have better technology than the courts and most judges don’t have direct access to the Internet. The state courts, Broderick noted, now are competing with other dispute resolution forums—private mediation, settlements, arbitration—and the state courts are hard-pressed to compete with inadequate or outmoded technology. As more disputes are resolved privately, justice is hidden from view. “I fear that more and more cases are fleeing to the private justice system behind closed doors—no public records, no public access. Courts will play a diminished role if this trend continues, as will juries,” Broderick told lawmakers.
Poor Pay for Court Staff
Entry-level jobs in the court system, for employees who help process court documents and judicial orders, pay $20,500 a year. “If health benefits are cut, I fear some good people may leave for a higher salary in the private sector and that many good people won’t apply,” Broderick said. Current staff “have met every challenge asked of them but I cannot keep asking without any relief in sight,” the chief justice said.
At the Midyear Meeting’s Supreme Court Forum CLE, held in Manchester in February, Broderick further elaborated on the issue of personnel, saying that the court’s budget request also seeks to fill 55 support positions that have been left vacant due to a tight budget. “We are going to try to fill those staff support vacancies,” said Broderick at the CLE. “The staff behind the counters are all overworked, and we have more and more people coming to court not knowing the process—it’s a case of depleted staff and more tasks to be done.”
Inadequate Courthouse Security
Chief Justice Broderick urged support for a bill (SB 79) to provide more funding and transfer all courthouse security functions to the county sheriff’s departments, which currently handle security in the superior courts and prisoner transport. The majority of the state courts’ security officers (which handle all of the other courts) are part-timers, paid $65 a day, without benefits or mileage, and they are required to provide their own weapons and blue blazers to wear on the job. Although Broderick noted that the court security officers were extraordinary men and women, he feared that some do not have “the experience or physical agility to be a major factor if an altercation or crisis ensues.”
“We need to reform court security and I hope we do so before tragedy strikes. Those most at risk are litigants and court staff—not the judges,” Broderick said.
At the Supreme Court Forum CLE, Justice Richard Galway, who recently chaired a task force on security for the judicial branch, said that courthouse security efforts may be difficult to champion: “Until something terrible happens and then it will be too late,” Galway said. “The courts are an incident waiting to happen.”
Broderick also spoke of innovations that have been put in place since his last address in 2005—small claims mediation, statewide expansion of the Family Division, and the development and private funding of “problem solving” courts for drug users and mentally ill offenders.
Broderick also explained a request for funding for an office to coordinate alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services. “Going forward I would like to see mediation used more broadly on a variety of disputes in the district courts. I am convinced that such an expansion will pay dividends for both the people and the courts,” he said.
“At my request, Justice [Linda] Dalianis of the Supreme Court chaired a committee, which had legislative representation, to study ADR throughout the Judicial Branch. The committee, which had broad representation, including Judges [Robert] Morrill and [Carol Ann] Conboy of the Superior Court, focused much of its attention on infusing the Superior Court with a re-invigorated statewide alternative dispute resolution system beyond the voluntary ADR program that exists under Rule 170 in four counties. The plan is based upon the model used in the state of Maine where they have been successful in resolving a significant percentage of all new case filings within a year of entry. I am confident after public input, and with your financial assistance, that we will adopt a comparable system this calendar year. We need to build off-ramps for those who use the courts and ADR expansion is absolutely critical to that mission.”
At the Supreme Court Forum CLE, Broderick and the other members of the court touched on other subjects of concern:
- New rules of civil procedure. Justice Dalianis said that—barring “a groundswell of opposition”—the Court hopes to adopt the procedure rules drafted at the Court’s request by the Committee on Cooperation with the Courts “by the end of this year.”
- Rule on joinder and severance. Dalianis said a new rule is under review by the Court’s Advisory Committee on Rules to allow criminal cases to be joined for efficiency of handling.
- Revision of Rules of Professional Conduct. Dalianis said a subcommittee of the Rules Committee will discuss the ethics code proposal at a meeting later in March.
Supreme Court Clerk Eileen Fox also spoke at the CLE, and noted to the audience that the Court’s recent decision to accept all but a few categories of appeals has changed what “review by appeal” means—more cases are accepted but the Court is not writing a significantly greater number of opinions or hearing many more oral arguments. In fact, of 600 cases fully briefed in the last year, about half were decided without oral argument, and many cases are decided by order, not by an opinion.
Editor’s Note: In upcoming issues of Bar News, more information from the Supreme Court Forum CLE will be provided, including tips for appellate practitioners, and the status of the Supreme Court’s appellate processing.
The Judicial Branch communications office contributed to this article. The NH Supreme Court posted the text of Chief Justice’s State of the Judiciary at http://www.courts.state.nh.us/press/index.htm.