Bar News - May 13, 2011
Court Proposes, then Pulls Plan to Move Nashua Court
By: Dan R. Wise
The plan to move the superior court in Nashua to Manchester came out of the blue, was placed on the fast track, and then moved onto the back track – all in less than two weeks.
Hillsborough Courthouse: One of two large courtrooms under construction at the Hillsborough Superior Court building on Chestnut Street in Manchester. The building is expected to be completed and operational by September. We’ll have more details about the new courthouse in the next issue of Bar News.
On Time, Under Budget
So far, it has been the only bump in the road in an otherwise smooth course of progress for the Judicial Branch. During a turbulent legislative session, the Court has fared well at the State House, considering that prospects are strong for:
Sweeping court reorganization (HB 609). The bill creating the Circuit Court – bringing together the probate, family and district courts and eliminating scores of clerks as managers -- has passed both Houses on a voice vote. The Governor has already expressed support for the concept.
Removing elected probate registers from court management. The court apparently has succeeded in executing an end-run around a difficult political issue: instead of seeking elimination of a constitutional elected position, the court reduced registers’ pay and proposed revising the job description to make it a ceremonial post. The judicial branch attracted support for this by claiming savings $900,000 a year by incorporating the registers’ management functions into the Circuit Court.
$3 million included in capital budget for court projects. These include creation of a centralized call center, and installation of videoconferencing equipment in all court sites, prisons, jails and public defender offices. Also, capital funding will fund the launch of the "e-Court" project, which encompasses a range of interactions with the court online, including court filings, notices, file retrieval and fine payments.
Few or no judicial appointments in the offing. The governor has indicated in discussions with the court that he will go slowly on filling nine judicial vacancies. Having to pay those judicial salaries would deprive the court of budgetary flexibility.
Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis has taken a low-key, accommodating approach to dealing with the legislature. In exchange for the relatively smooth progress on its budget requests, the Court agreed to legislators’ insistence that the Circuit Court be implemented immediately so that approximately $1 million in savings can be reaped now.
Smooth progress aside, Judicial Branch operations will still be hard-pressed for some time. Currently, 100 positions are vacant, and to keep within the spending allotted for it, the Judicial Branch may lay off as many as 60 employees.
The Nashua court initiative was an exception to the orderly progress at the legislature. On April 14, at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis unveiled a new element to the Judicial Branch restructuring plans – a cost-saving measure to reunify the Hillsborough County Superior Court Southern District now in Nashua with the Northern District at the Manchester courthouse when it reopens around Labor Day 2011.
The plan needed only legislative approval of an amendment to HB 2, part of the budget bill: removing Nashua as a site for the superior court. Court officials said the idea had only surfaced recently and that it made a lot of sense to them: making the move at the same time as the Hillsborough North operations returned to Manchester would be efficient for many reasons. There would be sufficient room for all of the superior court at the renovated courthouse in Manchester, there would be more room for the Circuit Court at the entire Spring Street courthouse in Nashua, and administration of the Hillsborough Superior Court would be streamlined if it was all at one location.
But area senators Jim Luther and attorney Gary Lambert, and city officials immediately lined up in opposition, along with an aroused Nashua legal community which felt it had been blind-sided by a proposal made without warning.
On April 28, Chief Justice Dalianis, while still praising the merits of the plan, admitted she had erred in trying to fast-track it. She withdrew her request for action on the amendment to implement the move this year. In a letter to Donalee Lozeau, Mayor of Nashua, Dalianis, a Nashua resident herself, wrote:
"Although we began developing this plan in response to the legislature’s request for additional cost savings from the judicial branch, we also believe that consolidation makes sense for our overall plan to improve court services statewide. Nevertheless, we appreciate that this is a policy matter that should be decided by the legislature and we welcome the opportunity for careful review through the full legislative process, including public hearings." She said the court would seek to introduce legislation to unify the Hillsborough County superior courts in the 2012 legislative session.
In remarks at a Business & Industry Association breakfast on the following day, Dalianis acknowledged she had made a mistake: "I was pushing too fast. It made sense to us to do this all at once, but not to do something that the senate opposed by putting a policy matter into the budget. The senate has made clear that it did not want to be doing that," Dalianis said. "So we have put the brakes on." She said that the Hillsborough Superior Court Southern District will remain at the Spring Street courthouse and that the court will seek support to introduce legislation in the 2012 session of the legislature to consider the move at that time.
David Gottesman, a Nashua attorney and former state senator, has been in the forefront of the Nashua Bar Association’s resistance to the consolidation plan.
"We are pleased that the Chief Justice has withdrawn her proposed amendment to HB2 that would have precluded any input from the public. However, in light of the comments of the Chief Justice that she plans to revisit the issue, we will certainly have more to say," Gottesman said. "The Nashua Bar Association is forming a permanent committee to address the court consolidation issues, and with the aid of our business community, legal community, and elected community officials, we will fight to keep the Superior Court here in Nashua, where it belongs. Access to justice in the trial court of this state in this community is not a luxury, but a necessity."
But Dalianis, at the BIA, made it clear that she is not backing off on the idea, only the timetable. She emphasized that the superior court in Nashua is a small court because the superior court overall has shrunk. "Hillsborough County Superior Court [counting both the North and South districts] used to have eight judges, and now it has five," she said. "That will be true for some time going forward."
At the BIA breakfast, Dalianis related her discussions with Governor Lynch on the subject of judicial appointments. Acknowledging that nine vacancies in the judiciary is undesirable, court officials nevertheless have been encouraging the governor to go slowly on additional appointments as the court lacks the administrative staff to support the additional bench strength. Dalianis said the governor told her: "You let me know when you can afford them."
Editor’s Note: Watch the e-Bulletin and the Bar's website for updates on the budget process. See page 5 for an article on how the budget will affect other executive branch agencies that are part of the legal community.