Bar News - May 14, 2010
Budget Debate Spurs Support for Courts
The prospect of significant reductions and delays in court operations and the vigorous efforts of the Chief Justice and leaders and members of the New Hampshire Bar and other organizations to speak out about it, has spurred a re-thinking of a proposed $4 million in cuts to the judicial branch for next year.
Chief Justice Broderick addressed Bar members on court budget issues on a live webcast on April 14, joined by NHBA President-elect Marilyn McNamara.
(See NHBA President James J. Tennís column on for his remarks at a crucial legislative hearing on April 15.)
Courts May be Spared $4 million cut
Shortly before the Bar News went to press, the House Finance Committee voted overwhelmingly to eliminate a cut of $4 million from the judicial branch budget, but it was not known how that money would be made up. Once the full House votes on the budget package of cuts and revenue increases to make up a projected $200 million deficit, the measure moves over to the Senate. If the Senate makes changes, as it probably will, the Senate and House versions of the bill will be worked on by a conference committee made up of members from both chambers. Given the size of the budget and the gap to be closed, the fate of the $4 million spared from the courts budget could change, and some level of budget cut required. The budget bill will then go to the Governor, with the entire process expected to be completed by the end of this month.
Over the past six weeks, the Chief Justice has made a sustained effort to speak out on the current state and the future prospects of the court system if it were hit by drastic cuts. He met with reporters and editorial page editors from most of the stateís major newspapers, and was interviewed on NHPR and on television, including a program on NH Public TV with Tenn and criminal defense attorney Cathy Green.
Strong show of support
An editorial by Fosterís Daily Democrat in Dover was typical of the press reaction: "Itís an old saw that justice delayed is justice denied. Unfortunately for New Hampshire, it is becoming a fact rather than philosophical rambling."
Lawyers and others concerned with the justice system raise hands to express opposition to further court budget cuts at an April 15 legislative hearing at which NHBA President Tenn testified. Read his account.
The Concord Monitor opined: "Lawmakers who want to see why the courts canít sustain further cuts should walk the courthouse halls. They will see angry, anxious, tearful and frightened people hoping to have their problem addressed so they can get on with their life."
The Bar Association set up a one-hour webcast so that members could hear directly from Chief Justice Broderick, moderated by NHBA President-Elect Marilyn McNamara. NHBA Executive Director Jeannine McCoy also appeared on the program at the end, answering questions about what the Bar would do to help spread the word about the impact of proposed cuts. Counting several offices where the webcast was shown in a conference room to a number of attorneys. More than 200 Bar members viewed the webcast "live," and several news accounts also mentioned the webcast, or quoted Broderick from it.
The Barís website has been regularly updated with links to news coverage and explanatory documents released by the courts.
At a legislative hearing of the House and Senate finance committees in mid-April, lawyers and others in the legal community were among the many constituents that filled the room to overflowing. Several lawyers waited all day to speak and were never reached. During his testimony, Ralph Holmes, president of the NH Association for Justice, asked all of the members of the audience who were here in opposition to court budget cuts to raise their hands. The forest of many raised arms made a powerful statement about the response of the legal community.
At the May 4 NH Bar Foundation Annual Dinner, Chief Justice Broderick briefly spoke about the combined efforts of the bench and bar to alert lawmakers and the public to the consequences of the budget reductions. Broderick has been heartened by the response. "I have never been prouder of our bar. I have never been prouder to be Chief Justice," he said.
Even greater challenges ahead
Regardless of the outcome in the current budget deliberations, the financial crisis for the court system, as for all of state government, is only just beginning. News accounts and executive branch officials hint that the budget gap for the next biennial budget will be even wider due to continuing revenue shortfalls and ever-rising needs and expenses.
Chief Justice Broderick has appointed a Judicial Branch Innovation Commission to look at how to make the court system more efficient and effective. Legislators are already looking forward to the groupís findings having an impact on court spending in the next budget cycle. The Commission, which is due to report in time for next yearís budget deliberations, is chaired by Eric Herr, a semi-retired high-tech executive who has been involved in the court system as a CASA volunteer, as a member of the Citizens Commission on the State Courts, and recently as chair of the NH Judicial Council.
Herr, the keynote speaker at the May 4 Bar Foundation dinner, has signaled that he believes a radical re-thinking of court operations is necessary. At the Bar Foundation dinner, he carefully assembled a detailed argument that private law practices as well as the court system must focus on and implement new methods of delivering services that will drive costs down by focusing on whatís important to consumers. Lawyers and the courts must acknowledge pro se litigation as a prevalent model and design judicial processes and legal services delivery models to accommodate that reality.
Rave Reviews for Bar Webcast
Viewers of the April 14 webcast with Chief Justice Broderick on the budget crisis, in a follow-up survey, overwhelmingly said the webcast was valuable and timely. And, they said, the Chief succeeded in communicating the urgency of the situation.
"Go for it," one respondent wrote in comments. "Court funding is essential to what we do. It also offers the Bar a very strong opportunity to show members the value of uniting as a profession and the value of the Bar as an institutional force."
- 62.5 percent said they heard facts on the webcast that they hadnít known about the budget situation
- 78.8 percent said the webcast motivated them to express their views to legislators and others about court resources.
The Bar Association extends a special thanks to Legalspan, its partner for online CLE programs, for making the online webcasting capability available at no charge for this important purpose.
Looking at a variety of measures, Herr says the "math is inevitable" that, as it is currently delivered, legal services are expensive and will grow even more expensive relative to other living costs. This inflation, left unchecked, will deprive more and more citizens of access to professional representation. Similarly, the courts must reexamine how cases are processed, even considering outsourcing some administrative functions, to reduce costs dramatically.
As an example, he said the legal system must stop looking at a courthouse as a physical place but instead view it as a "collection of activities." More of the transactional work of the court can be done online, or via videoconference, he said. From the lawyersí point of view, he said, charging clients for travel time does not "add value." To be more productive and accessible to clients, lawyers have to find ways to remove that unnecessary expense. From the courtsí perspective, courts and judges must be more open to conducting hearings telephonically and using e-mail and the Internet to file cases and enable online access to dockets and public files. Data entry must be streamlined as there is enormous waste and potential for errors in entering information that has already been captured by other levels of the court, using computer systems that are not interconnected.
Herr sees the urgency of change because inevitable economic forces are driving up costs and driving litigants away, and because the stakes are so high: If courts continue to lose "market share," the rule of law is threatened, he said.