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Bar News - January 16, 2009


President’s Perspective: Economic Crisis Affects Vital Services

By:

Ellen L. Arnold

The system, already under stress, is taxed by new crises. Services which we depend on are not being delivered quickly or reliably. These problems are statewide in scope. People are frustrated. Planned outages will help conserve strained resources, but at what cost?

No, I am not talking about our electric utilities and the challenges of restoring service after last month’s ice storm. I am referring to the state’s current financial crisis and the Court’s response to requests to reduce the budget for New Hampshire’s justice system.

Although not all of us regularly practice in the state courts, we all are aware of the stresses on the judicial branch and the corresponding stresses on individuals and communities when justice is not provided. As they say, justice delayed is justice denied.

The judicial branch, however, is not a component of the executive. It is an independent branch of government with corresponding constitutional obligations and responsibilities to the citizens of New Hampshire. As we navigate the current financial crisis, it is imperative that we bear those responsibilities and keep that independence in mind. I am sure you have read, as I have, the media reports of how state budget crises from coast to coast are causing already squeezed resources for the justice system to be reduced in ways that limit access to this cornerstone of our civilized society. (See links to local and national articles on the home page at www.nhbar.org.) As the Los Angeles Times noted in a December 22 column, the suspension of jury sessions for one month in nine superior court locations in New Hampshire has become a "poster child" for the critical impact budget reductions are having on our courts and our clients.

What you may be less aware of is the diligence and tough decision-making of the Court in responding to the Governor’s requests for budget reductions, making choices that are recognized as being between "bad" and "worse." In response to the Governor’s request that the judiciary further reduce its budget by an additional $3 million, Chief Justice John Broderick, on Nov. 18, 2008, outlined budget reductions already taken in FY 2009 (FY09), proposed further possible budget reductions in FY09, and proposed revenue raising ideas.

You also may not know that by last November, the Court’s FY09 budget had already been reduced by $2.7 million as a result of legislation requiring a reduction of $1.6 million in addition to the "average historical lapse amount of $1.1 million per fiscal year." That total $2.7 million comprises approximately four percent of the original $73.8 million appropriated by the legislature for the operation of the judicial branch in FY 2009. In order to accomplish these initial reductions, the court took the following steps:

  • Maintaining vacancies in 36 of the 614 full-time permanent non-judicial positions. This represents six percent of the non-judicial workforce.
  • Maintaining seven judicial vacancies (three in Superior Court, three in District Court, and one in the Probate Court), representing about 12 percent of the full-time judicial positions.
  • Postponing the acquisition of additional security screening equipment.
  • Reducing mileage reimbursements for non-judicial employees, justices, and marital masters.
  • Reducing per diem payments, and thus, judge time in the District and Family Courts.
  • Reducing the judicial branch’s continuing legal education budget.
  • Reducing law library expenditures.
  • Suspending jury trials for one month this fiscal year.

I encourage you to review the Chief Justice’s November 18 submittal to the Governor.

There is very little room for further cuts in the judicial budget without laying off existing personnel and further impairing the courts’ ability to provide access to justice. This is because the major expenses of the judicial branch are personnel and facilities. Less than 10 percent of the budget is devoted to other expenses.

Nonetheless, and in response to the request that the budget be further reduced by $3 million, the Court has proposed that the vacancy created by Justice Galway’s retirement from the Supreme Court not be filled until the start of the next fiscal year. Throughout the judicial branch, some underutilized phone lines have been disconnected, computers will be turned off, professional memberships suspended, and law library acquisitions further reduced. Other reductions are being considered as well as the potential for further suspension of jury trials.

As if that is not enough, the state’s economic woes and the deepening state deficit may lead to further reductions for FY 2010 and 2011. As Chief Justice Broderick told the Concord Monitor in early December, "We have been trying to find every dollar we can that doesn’t damage the system."

Every month at our Board of Governor’s meetings, Governor-at-Large Lisa Wellman-Ally vividly describes the lives of many of her Sullivan County clients (who I’m sure are similar to many of yours) who live with agonizing and expensive uncertainty about the fate of their families, the potential award of damages, the ability to remain in their housing, as well as the wide variety of other critical property and business matters which remain unresolved, because they are waiting to get before a judge.

In our current and anticipated economic condition, the crises and necessities of life are placing increasing demands on our system. As a result, the Court is being called upon to precariously balance the request for further budgetary reductions with the impact of those reductions on the judiciary’s constitutional obligations.

As the Court shares its budget planning and the potential impact of further reductions that may be necessary, I urge you to keep informed and become actively involved. As members of the Association, you have a keen understanding of the pivotal role of the justice system in our society. Your knowledge of the very real and human impacts of these stresses on our justice system makes you a credible advocate for providing necessary resources for the justice system.

I encourage you to share your experiences with the Bar Association so that we can most effectively advocate for judicial resources. You can write to the Bar Association at nhbainfo@nhbar.org with examples or anecdotes of the impact of inadequate funding of the courts upon your clients. Your input is welcome and valued.

Ellen L. Arnold, associate general counsel of Dartmouth College, is the 2008-2009 President of the New Hampshire Bar Association.

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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