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Bar News - August 13, 2010

Further Cutbacks to Courts Having an Impact


Courts around the state are falling further behind in processing paperwork and re-scheduling even later dates for court hearings and jury trials.

Deeper cuts to the court budget, necessitated by final budget action, are pushing matters to the extreme. A one-third cut in jury sessions in Sullivan County – which only has a superior court judge sitting there every other month – means no jury trials in September or January. Cases scheduled for September won’t be heard in November, as that docket is already full, so the earliest they might be heard is March, officials there say.

The jury sessions’ cut, affecting every superior court, is meant to save $280,000, which represents a chunk of approximately $1 million in expenses the court had to absorb in the remaining year of the biennium. Also necessary – deeper cutbacks in court sessions for the family division, and district and probate courts.

Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly says the cumulative impact on the district courts is a reduction of 20 percent in court sessions over the biennium.

To catch up on mounting paperwork, courts are also instituting restricted hours for the clerk’s offices, further constricting public access to the court system.

Lisa Wellman-Ally, a Newport attorney who does criminal defense and family law, has been outspoken about the impact of the cuts in Sullivan County over the past couple of years. Wellman-Ally, an NHBA Governor-at-large, recently told the Claremont Eagle Times newspaper that serious matters are being postponed, and citizens’ rights to access the courts are being overlooked. "I definitely think its going to take a horrific event for the Legislature to realize that the judicial system is a fundamental right, and by messing with the budget of the Judicial Branch, they are messing with people’s fundamental rights," she said. She said she knows that statutory time limits for some cases have already been missed, and that this could lead to dismissal of charges as a result. She cited as examples cases involving child abuse and neglect. This could lead to children being returned to abusive homes, or the opposite situation, where a child remains in foster care for an extended time when it isn’t necessary. The summer months, when judges and staff also are taking vacation time or when the combination of furlough days and a holiday (such as the 4th of July or Labor Day) will result in total closure of the courts for as many as four days at a time, also will hamper operations.

Also taking a hard hit from the budget cuts are the state’s part-time judges, especially a small number that have essentially given up their law practices to accept additional judicial days at a per-diem rate, thus suffering a cutback of 20 percent or more in their incomes. These judges, including Hon. Paul Moore and Bruce Cardello, instead of working five days a week, now are paid for only 3 to 4 days of work, and they receive no retirement or other employee benefits. Judge Cardello, who sits in both the Family Division and the district court in Newport, has been a judge since 2005. He says the caseload is rising, not diminishing, but session days are much fewer.

He and the court staff in both the district court and Family Division are triaging the cases coming in, trying to observe statutory time limits and the urgency of domestic violence, juvenile, eviction, and criminal cases while seeing many other cases, including many small claims and other disputes languish. "There is a slow, gradual backing-up of cases, that is just getting worse," Cardello says. People are anxious for the court to have their cases heard and resolved. "We are always having to put their matters on [the docket] further out than they wish." When asked whether he was concerned that rising frustration of litigants could lead to serious consequences or even a violent incident, he acknowledged: "That could well be a by-product of this."

Cardello said he enjoys being a judge and hopes that he can convert to a full-time judge someday, but he admits that he sometimes is concerned about whether that will happen.

Editorial Opinion Writers Take Notice

Nashua Telegraph, July 20, 2010: Judicial budget cuts a cause for concern

"If you were wondering when your civil trial might get posted on the court calendar, you can relax – chances are that it isn’t going to happen for quite a while.

"That’s one of the new realities of conducting judicial business in New Hampshire now that state court officials have found it necessary to cut back services to the public even further in the midst of the state’s ongoing budget challenges."

The editorial notes that state courts in other states are also being forced to make painful cuts in operations, citing:
  • California has been closing all of its courts on the third Wednesday of each month since September 2009, and 70 of 580 courtrooms in Los Angeles are to close by September.
  • Hawaii has shut down its courts two Fridays each month since last September, and the judicial budget has been cut 20 percent.
  • Massachusetts is planning to close district courts in five cities to save money.
  • Vermont was not cited in the editorial, but recently implemented changes are restructuring the entire court system. Vermont has experienced unpaid furloughs and court closings in the last two years.
The editorial continues:

"Still, as we stated a few months ago when we opposed Gov. Lynch’s push to reduce the judicial branch’s budget by another $4 million, we seem to be getting dangerously close to failing to meet our obligations under the state and federal constitutions.

"Neither document makes any exceptions for budget shortfalls when it calls for speedy trials for criminal defendants or the ‘sacred’ right to have a civil trial by jury."

Union Leader, July 25, 2010: A New Hampshire injustice: Culture over courts

"To help close a $295 million state budget gap, legislators and Gov. John Lynch cut the budget for New Hampshire’s court system by $4.1 million this year. By contrast, they cut the Department of Cultural Resources budget by $1 million….

"The next scheduled statewide court closure is Aug. 6. Two days before that, on Aug. 4, the NH State Council on the Arts will hold a meeting at the new Merrimack Courthouse for artists interested in creating a piece of public art for the courthouse. Incredibly, New Hampshire has money to commission of piece of artwork for a courthouse it cannot keep open…

"Legislators and Gov. Lynch have done a remarkably poor job of setting funding priorities. The Dept. of Cultural Resources provides some valuable public services, but some of its funding is questionable. And none of it is more important than providing a fully functioning court system for the people. Citizens can go to private sources for art. They have nowhere else to turn for justice…"

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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