Bar News - April 17, 2009
Broderick: Courts at ‘Maximum Stress’
By: Dan Wise
Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr. continues to advocate for more funding for the court system in an extremely difficult budget year, and with Round 1 over, he appears to be making a small amount of headway.
Longtime State House reporter Kevin Landrigan of the Nashua Telegraph, in an April 7 article, called Broderick one of the early winners in the bruising budget process. "The judicial branch leader made the point over and over again that the system was crumbling and warned that the cuts [Gov.] Lynch proposed in his budget were unsustainable."
Legislators, Landrigan wrote, ended up lightening cuts to the courts’ budget from the governor’s request by $8 million over a two-year period.
On March 25, the Chief Justice addressed both chambers of the legislature. Two-thirds of his speech was upbeat, a recounting of the court system’s accomplishments as well as the steps taken to date to trim the budget to address the deficit in the current fiscal year. In the concluding third, he staked out his position that the courts have reached the breaking point.
"Our court system is at maximum stress," Broderick said, citing the current vacancies: seven vacant judgeships out of 59 full-time positions (three vacancies in the superior court out of a statutory limit of 22) and 50 out of 614 non-judicial staff positions unfilled. "…and we are not filling them [under current budget proposals]. We can’t and keep the system running. Too few staff and too few judges is not the best formula for a century moving at the speed of light.
"As you know, the Judicial Branch does not have programs that it can cut or delay. Respectfully, we are the program."
In closing, he told lawmakers: "I am seeking your assistance, your counsel and renewed commitment to ensure that the courts of our state can meet the needs of our citizens and the mandate of our Constitution. Timely justice is not just a good idea or a noble aspiration. It is the glue that holds our Republic together and it is guaranteed by our founding document."
While continuing to advocate for some of the scarce dollars in Concord, on another front, Broderick and the other chief judges, Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn and Family and District Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly, pressed ahead on money-saving court consolidations. They did give some ground—removing Claremont, Colebrook and Milford from the list of district courts and halving the governor’s estimated savings on leases from $2 million to $1 million. The three judges also traveled to Keene for a long day of listening to the concerns of Cheshire County and Keene officials, and court staffers, who oppose efforts to consolidate facilities and move some court operations from Keene. The goal: saving slightly more than $57,000 by ending the courts’ lease with the city for the Keene District Court, located in Keene City Hall.
At a fractious, three-hour Cheshire County Bar meeting, Broderick patiently listened to complaints about the judges’ lack of understanding of the disruptions and problems to be caused by the main plan—moving domestic relations cases to the under-used courthouse in Jaffrey. A related feature of this plan is that it would speed up the implementation of the Family Division in Cheshire County – a development touted as an advantage by Broderick, and viewed with skepticism by some in the audience.
The historic Cheshire County Courthouse, including the original courthouse built in 1858 and an addition built in 1979-1980,. is inadequate for the burgeoning civil and criminal caseload it handles.
Larry Kane, Keene District Court Clerk and Christina Carbonaro, district court assistant, work in cramped quarters at Keene City Hall. The state courts hope to move the district court to another facility, thus saving a $57,000 annual lease payment.
More than once during the discussion at the Cheshire Bar meeting, Broderick told his audience that they did not understand the intensity – and tension – that characterizes the state budget process this year.
"It is a non-starter for someone in my job, in this economy, to say to the governor and the legislature that there is nothing we can do for you," in economizing by consolidating courts, he said. Earlier, at a meeting of local officials and attorneys, he said: "I can’t emphasize strongly enough how tense this budget is." Broderick’s concerns were echoed by State Senator Molly Kelly, who seemed taken aback by the lack of deference given to the visiting judges by some of the critics of the courts’ plans.
Now the focus shifts from the NH House to the NH Senate, and the early "gains" are far from assured, as the budget now gets a working over by the upper chamber, and will be affected by subsequent disclosures or perceptions about the economic situation and deficit projections.
The last stage of the budget process is likely to be fast and furious. The budget is subject to the frenzied, unpredictable, mostly-behind-closed-door reconciliation process of competing House and Senate versions. With the session deadline looming, a House-Senate committee works long hours, with much horse-trading expected, to conjure a budget that both chambers will approve.