Bar News - February 17, 2012
Opinion: Nashua Officials: Closing Nashua Superior Court Branch Would Be Mistake
By: Patrick Meighan
Attorneys, their clients, potential jurors and court employees have been vocal in protesting a plan to close the Hillsborough County Superior Court branch in the city.
With a hearing on the proposal scheduled for Feb. 9, city officials and business owners plan to weigh in.
"Itís a big mistake for a number of reasons," Alderman-at-Large David Deane said.
Sending Superior Court packing from the Spring Street courthouse would limit residentsí access to justice and hurt the "legal infrastructure" of the cityís downtown, Deane said.
While the board hasnít formally adopted a position on the proposal, "We donít think itís a good idea," said Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy, the board president.
McCarthy, like Deane, cited the potential damage to the legal infrastructure.
"There are a number of law offices that are in the vicinity of the courthouse," McCarthy said. "Those guys are not going to be here if they have to be in Manchester."
As a cost-savings measure, state legislation proposes moving Hillsborough County Superior Court South out of Nashua and consolidating it with the Hillsborough County Superior Court North branch in Manchester.
House Bill 1655 is before the House Judiciary Committee. A hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday in Suite 208 of the Legislative Office Building in Concord.
If the bill passes, the merger could happen as early as September.
The Spring Street courthouse would remain open. The building also houses family and probate courts and Nashua district court, which moved there from Chestnut Street in the fall.
Misdemeanor and motor vehicle offenses, landlord-tenant disputes and small-claims suits are handled in district court.
Superior court is the venue for felony criminal cases, divorces and civil lawsuits with a minimum claim of $1,500 in damages and for which either party requests a jury trial.
Proponents of merging the Nashua and Manchester branches have cited cost savings as the reason. The merger would save $18,000 for fiscal 2014 and 2015 before a larger annual savings of $312,991 would start in fiscal 2016, proponents said.
Opponents have said the estimated cost savings for 2016 and beyond is greatly exaggerated.
Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, with a contingency of attorneys and businesspeople, plans to testify against the bill at the Judiciary Committee hearing.
The biggest issue with losing Superior Court would be limiting residentsí access to justice, Lozeau said. There also is a business aspect: Business would suffer lost productivity if employees called to jury duty, for example, have to travel to Manchester, Lozeau said.
In some cases, whatís now a half day off could translate to a worker missing a full day of work, she said.
Lozeau remembers how much work it took to bring the Superior Court branch to Nashua in the mid-1980s. At the time, Lozeau was a state representative.
Alderman-at-Large James Donchess was front and center in that effort. Donchess served as mayor when the court branch opened in Nashua.
The push to open a superior court branch in downtown Nashua predated his administration, Donchess said. But it was during his tenure as mayor that the city successfully lobbied the state to open a courthouse downtown, said Donchess, who served as mayor from 1984-91.
Donchess, an attorney, is a partner is the firm Donchess & Notinger, based in Nashua.
The state first sought to open a Hillsborough County South branch of the court west of downtown where Nashua Community College now sits, Donchess said.
City officials, however, wanted the courthouse downtown to provide better access to residents and to bring more people to the downtown, Donchess said.
"It took a lot of work to get the courthouse here," he said.
A junior high school on the Spring Street site was scheduled to close with the opening of what is now Pennichuck Middle School on Manchester Street.
The city agreed to raze the old building and give the land to the state for the courthouse so there wouldnít be a state expense to buy the land, Donchess said.
City officials worked hard to persuade the Legislature, and Donchess said the deal never would have been struck if not for the work of the cityís two state senators at the time: John Stabile, a Republican, and Rick Boyer, a Democrat.
The same reasons that the city wanted Superior Court downtown still stand, Donchess said.
Plus, the state wouldnít save much money by closing the court, he said.
Some lawmakers have objected to Hillsborough being the only county with two Superior Court branches.
"In every county, we have people traveling to one location, except for one: Hillsborough," said the primary sponsor of the bill, Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston.
Southern Hillsborough County serves Greater Nashua, which has a larger population than many of the stateís counties, Donchess noted. Nashua is the stateís second-largest city.
Donchess isnít advocating that any county courthouse should close, only that the Nashua area is large enough to merit its own superior court branch.
"If any courthouse has to be closed, why should it have to be this one?" Donchess said.
Closing the court branch makes no sense, but logic doesnít seem to guide state lawmakers in matters concerning Nashua, McCarthy said.
"The state will do what the stateís going to do at this point," McCarthy said. "Iím not sure the best interests of Nashua are taken into account all that often."
This article first appeared in The Nashua Telegraph and is reprinted here with permission. Read the original article. Patrick Meighan can be reached at 603-594-6518 or firstname.lastname@example.org.