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Bar News - June 6, 2008

State Budget Woes Force Judicial Branch Cutbacks


Are your civil cases not being reached due to a shortage of judges? Are orders from state courts taking forever to emerge from the clerks’ offices? Be prepared, such delays are going to get worse in the next year.

The NH Legislature has approved $1.6 million in cuts from the judicial branch’s $70 million budget. However, the good news is that it could have been worse, as the Legislature stopped short of approving a long list of possible budget cuts proposed by the Judicial Branch. The list of cuts were developed and reluctantly proposed by the Court in response to Gov. Lynch’s directive to the judicial branch and state agencies to reduce spending by $2.25 million as part of the state’s effort to cope with a projected shortfall of $225 million in the state budget. (The rest of the deficit is to be made up by a combination of revenue raising and borrowing.)

The specific cuts developed by the judicial branch, are detailed in a letter and memos from Chief Justice John Broderick that were made public on May 1 and posted on the Court’s website.

Last week, the Court learned that the legislative budget-makers approved cuts totaling almost $1.6 million, as well as taking the entire "lapse" which is whatever unspent money in specific line-item areas is left after the end of the state fiscal year on June 30.

Broderick had proposed three levels of cutbacks, with items listed in order of priority. The budget-makers approved the cuts in various line items for most of the Level 1 and Level 2 cuts, including a hiring freeze that would leave an additional 15 non-judicial staff positions vacant over the next year. A third level of cuts – which a court memo said would "cause a serious strain on service" – had not yet been authorized.

In his May 1 letter, Broderick said that if even deeper cuts were required from the judicial branch, he would propose an unpaid two-day furlough available on a voluntary basis to all judges and staff in the system to avoid layoffs.

"While we fully support the state’s effort to reduce spending in the face of difficult economic times, there is no doubt that the deep reductions in our FY 09 spending that we have identified would have significant ramifications throughout our justice system," Broderick wrote to legislative leaders. In addition to current impacts, Broderick also expressed concern that reducing the level of spending now will set back progress in future years.

"Our concern now is that spending reductions of the magnitude we have identified, in a budget that has been painfully lean for years, will seriously erode the progress we have made in our effort to better serve our citizens and have a substantial impact on the morale of judges, marital masters and staff throughout the system," Broderick wrote. "We have the additional concern that in the next biennium, our budget will not be restored to the level we began with before we were asked to absorb a year of serious reductions."

Although retired judges sitting part-time have helped fill in some gaps, superior courts in many counties are hampered by vacancies caused by retirements and the growth of the court’s criminal docket. Due to speedy trial rules, the criminal cases take precedence. Compounding the problem, the statewide rollout of the Family Division has been slower than anticipated, thus leaving the understaffed Superior Court with a family law docket in Hillsborough and Cheshire counties. According to a study by the National Center for State Courts, 25.7 judges are needed to efficiently manage the Superior court caseload (after all marital cases are transferred to the Family Division). With the recent retirements of Judge Peter Fauver and Edward Fitzgerald and the resignation of Patricia Coffey, the Superior Court is now down to 19 judges, three below its statutory minimum of 22 (including the chief justice).

The latest round of budget-cutting by the legislature stopped short of withdrawing funding to fill judicial vacancies in the Concord and Laconia district courts, the Hillsborough County Probate Court judgeship to be vacated this year by the mandatory retirement of Judge Raymond Cloutier, and three superior court vacancies. Whether or when the governor chooses to fill the judicial positions is unknown.

"Gov. Lynch is not compelled to spend [the money appropriated for the judgeships] but we hope he will," said Chief Justice Broderick.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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