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Justice tells lawmakers court system is under “great strain”
progress but says “bold” action needed now
CONCORD—Chief Justice John T. Broderick Jr., addressing a joint session of House and Senate lawmakers, said today that judges, marital masters and court staff are “laboring under great strain” as they work with limited resources to try to keep the administration of justice timely and efficient.
“Our staff of 596, for whom I have great affection and gratitude, has
stepped up every time I have asked, but there are limits and I believe we have
reached them,” Broderick said in his second State of the Judiciary
the New Hampshire legislature.
Broderick noted progress since he last addressed lawmakers in 2005, including ongoing statewide expansion of the family division; small claims mediation in all district courts; private funding of “problem-solving” courts for drug users and mentally ill defendants; and development of new policy on public access to electronic court records. But the Chief Justice, said the court system is now at a “critical crossroads."
"In my judgment we need to be bold and farsighted in our vision and our actions, " the Chief Justice said. In his speech, he identified four major challenges facing the court system today:
Broderick said that the increasing number of litigants who represent themselves in the court system requires the staff to spend time, either in the clerk’s office or on the phone, explaining the court process to them. “It’s not their fault—it’s just our reality. The result is delay, a decline in staff morale and a legal community and client base increasingly frustrated by the time it takes to process and forward court orders which are so important to their lives,” Broderick said.
In its 2008-09 budget request, the court system has asked the state to fund a recommendation by the Citizens Commission on the State Courts to provide more case managers in the trial courts, to assist pro se litigants and move cases more efficiently through the system.
Rollout of the Judicial Branch electronic case management system has been completed in 13 district court locations, but, Broderick said, many small law firms have better technology than the courts and most judges don’t have direct access to the Internet. Broderick also noted that enhanced technology will help better manage their affairs and improve Judicial Branch accountability. He also remarked that unless the court system steps up the process, so it can cut costs and delays, more disputes will be resolved privately, through settlements or private mediation in which records are most often sealed from public view.
“I fear that more and more cases are fleeing to the private justice system behind closed doors—no public records, no public access. Courts will play a diminished role if this trend continues, as will juries,” Broderick told lawmakers.
Entry-level jobs in the court system, for employees who help process court documents and judicial orders, pay $20,500 a year. “If health benefits are cut, I fear some good people may leave for a higher salary in the private sector and that many good people won’t apply,” Broderick said. Current staff “have met every challenge asked of them but I cannot keep asking without any relief in sight,” the Chief Justice said.
The Chief Justice noted that the majority of court security officers are paid $65.00 a day, without benefits or mileage and they are required to provide their own weapon and blue blazer to wear on the job. Although Broderick noted that the court security officers were extraordinary men and women, he feared that some do not have “the experience or physical agility to be a major factor if an altercation or crisis ensues.”
“We need to reform court security and I hope we do so before tragedy strikes. Those most at risk are litigants and court staff—not the judges,” Broderick said. He urged support for a bill now before the legislature that would provide that the county sheriffs, who currently staff the Superior Courts and handle prisoner transport, supply and train security personnel for all court locations.
In his closing remarks to lawmakers, Broderick said, “If we are to meet these great challenges to the administration of justice in New Hampshire and if the courts are to meet the expectations of the people they serve, I respectfully suggest that we will need big ideas and constructive change.”
“Small steps and timid progress will, in my judgment, be too little too late,” the Chief Justice said.
A full text of the State of Judiciary address is available at www.courts.state.nh.us.