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Isabella Brooke Knightly and Austin Gamez-Knightly

Isabella Brooke Knightly and Austin Gamez-Knightly
In Memory of my Loving Husband, William F. Knightly Jr. Murdered by ILLEGAL Palliative Care at a Nashua, NH Hospital

Sunday, April 11, 2010

N.H. Chief justice decries court budget cuts

Friday, April 9, 2010 10:01AM
N.H. Chief justice decries court budget cuts

CONCORD MONITOR - If lawmakers cut the judicial budget by an additional $4 million as Gov. John Lynch proposed yesterday, the courts couldn't hold civil jury trials, fill the 10 judicial vacancies or keep adequate security at the courthouses, Chief Justice John Broderick said.The retired judges who sit frequently would also be let go, forcing the court system to further slow down cases, Broderick said yesterday. The other choice, Broderick said, would be eliminating 71 positions in addition to the 67 already vacant and unfunded.
"The state courts as I knew them are dying," Broderick said in an interview with Monitor editors yesterday. "We can pretend it's not happening or that we are overreacting. I am not overreacting."
Lynch announced the proposed judicial reductions yesterday as part of his overall plan to cut $85 million statewide this year and next. In addition to budget cuts, Lynch would lay off between 30 and 35 state workers and increase the cigarette tax by 20 cents to close a projected $220 million budget shortfall.
Broderick met with Lynch late last week and urged him to rethink cutting the judicial budget. He said he reminded Lynch that the judicial branch returned $2 million to the state in 2009 and is cutting $3.1 million from its budget this year with unpaid furloughs.
Now, Broderick is looking to lawmakers.
"There are no bad people in this equation," he said. "But there are very bad circumstances and some poor decisions. It's the poor decisions that I'm fighting back against."
At Lynch's request, Broderick identified where he'd find the $4 million and what those cuts would mean for the court system:
• He'd leave open the 10 judicial openings and stop using senior judges on a per diem basis in the district and family courts. That would save about $1.48 million but further burden a court system that is already struggling to accommodate trials and hearings, Broderick said.
District court sessions, which cover all misdemeanors, arraignments, small claims and other smaller civil cases, are already down 12 percent, Broderick said. Eliminating the per diem judges would further slow cases by 30 percent.
Divorce cases in family court, where custody and livelihoods are at stake, are already dragged out because of an overbooked court docket, Broderick said. That would get worse.
• Broderick would cut the budget for jury trials in half, to $400,000. Criminal trials would take precedent because defendants are guaranteed a trial within four months unless they waive that right.
Under these cuts, "smart lawyers won't (continue) a thing," Broderick said. "They know we won't be able to get to their case in four months." Cases will be dismissed as a consequence, he said.
And there would be no money left for civil jury trials, which are not under the same time constraints, Broderick said. More business, medical claims and other civil disputes would be settled out of court in private mediation, where rules of law don't apply and there is no appeal.
• Broderick would also cut security expenses by 20 percent, for a savings of $200,000. Court security officers are paid $80 a day and must supply their own gun and uniform. If there were too few security officers on duty to provide safety, Broderick would occasionally suspend hearings to find the savings.
Timely access to courts is protected by the state constitution, and Broderick returned to that often yesterday.
"We are one of the promises democracy makes," he said. "I took an oath to uphold those promises, and I'm growing increasingly concerned that we are not fulfilling them."
He said he's also worried the courts are becoming irreverent to people's lives.
The state's courts get 230,000 new cases each year. Each case, Broderick said, touches the lives of at least two people, often more. There are already too few judges and employees to move those cases through in a reasonable amount of time, he said.
During a recent visit to a family court in Strafford County, Broderick asked about the files that filled two metal carts, each three shelves deep. They were all rulings - in divorce, domestic violence and other family matters - that needed to be passed on to the parties involved. The clerks hadn't had time to process them.
"Every one of these failures is somebody's life," Broderick said.
A copy of Broderick's letter can be found on the court's Web site: www.courts.state.nh.us/press/index.htm


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