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Bar News - June 17, 2011

Chief Justice Dalianis: Tough Choices for Improving Access to Justice

The following is an excerpt of Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis’s testimony at the ABA Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System on May 26, 2011, at the UNH School of Law.

President-elect Robinson, Co-Chairs Olson and Boies, Honorary Chair Olson and members of the Task Force: As Chief Justice, I want to welcome you to New Hampshire. Our story is about tough choices for improving access to justice in the face of a severe decline in our state resources—and little likelihood of more money in the future. A year ago, my predecessor as Chief Justice, Dean John Broderick, described our situation this way:
"In short, we have no choice: the Judicial Branch can either continue down the path of incremental reductions in service or we can seek those innovations that will permit the courts to meet the needs of our Twenty-first Century constituents."
He was right. Like our colleagues around the country we cut away at our operations to meet budget reductions. We closed our courthouses for a total of 12 days in FY11 and all judges, administrators and staff took unpaid furlough days. We cut jury trials by a third; with the concurrence of the Governor, nine judgeships remained vacant; we held open more than 10 percent of non-judicial staff jobs, which inevitably slows down case-processing. Some courts began closing a few afternoons a week, just to allow for uninterrupted time to process cases—that remains the case today. Judge days in our District Court and Family Division, which handle more than 80 percent of our work, were cut back, ultimately by 20 percent.

This year, my colleagues and I on the Supreme Court knew we could not demand more handouts from the legislature—that was unrealistic considering the state’s still dire economic condition. We had to work with lawmakers, in the best interest of the Judicial Branch. At the same time, we knew we had to do a better job managing what resources we are allotted.

In short, we had to change.

We also made a fundamental decision. We concluded it is unfair to continue to try to balance the budget by closing the courts to the public. So, there will be no more unpaid furlough days in the New Hampshire court system. Our doors will be open; our judges, administrators and staff will be at work five days a week. We will not shut down our courts again to save money. We knew that by giving up the savings from furlough days, we would have to find the money elsewhere, and that meant making painful reductions in our staff, which of course only slows down our operations and delays access to justice. But, we had to move forward.

First, through an extraordinary effort by our administrative judges and staff, and with the support of the Governor and state legislature, we are about to execute dramatic restructuring that will make our system more efficient and improve access to justice.
  • On July 1, we will merge our district and probate courts and our family division into a single "Circuit Court" system. Overall management restructuring will save more than $1.4 million a year.
  • By January 2012, we will have established a single "Circuit Court Call Center" to provide prompt efficient service to citizens while freeing up our staff in the courts to focus on case processing.
  • Video-conferencing capabilities will be expanded to cut costs of transporting prisoners to courthouses for arraignments and other hearings. Every court location, every county jail, the state prison and the offices of the public defender will be connected.
  • We will hire 20 part-time employees who will work off hours for the Circuit Court, processing cases. Pilot projects have demonstrated as much as a 100 percent increase in efficiency in working off hours.
  • With financial backing from the state legislature, we will launch a paperless "e-Court" system that will include e-filing, electronic payment of fees and fines, digitization of court records and electronic access to court records by litigants, attorneys and members of the public. That is an investment in the future that will provide efficiencies and better service for the public.
  • We have backed legislation that would consolidate two of our busiest jury trial courts in a newly renovated courthouse; not all the lawyers are happy about this, but we project the merger will produce major savings and efficiencies in case processing.

The New Hampshire Judicial Branch Innovation Commission was the catalyst behind this dramatic restructuring. That Commission, which created a mandate for change, was John Broderick’s idea when he was Chief Justice. We have seen it through.

But, even with this huge effort to enact change, and the savings that will result, this year our anticipated appropriation is still $3.2 million short of what we need to operate at our reduced FY 11 levels. As we all know, court systems are people-intensive organizations — we do not have programs to cut. So to help fill the gap, we cut our staff. This was the hardest choice of all.

Earlier this month, we implemented a reduction in force of 73 positions throughout the court system, including layoffs and early retirements. In February we had 527 non-judicial employees in our courts. By the end of summer, we will have 454 non-judicial personnel, a 13 percent reduction in staff. This was on top of about 100 staff jobs that were already vacant. That is the difficult reality our state court, and the public it serves, faces today, and into the future.

In closing, I commend this Task Force for its effort to shine a public spotlight on the issue of underfunding for our courts, and on the impact that has on equal access to justice for all. When it comes to which part of government gets what appropriation, this is the justice system, a core function of government, a branch of government. That should mean something.

But let me say this too. From where I sit—and I have been a judge in New Hampshire for more than 30 years—it is also our responsibility to evolve. In New Hampshire, we recognized that it was not possible to continue business as usual in the courthouse while waiting for more revenue to come in from the statehouse. Not in this climate; not in this economy. We had to accept the reality that if we wanted to provide better service to the citizens who need our courts every day then we were going to have to do things differently. That’s exactly what we are going do.

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