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Trials halted to save money

The economic crisis is delaying justice across the country. The problem is acute in New Hampshire.

December 22, 2008|Bob Drogin

BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Come February, the red-brick Rockingham County Courthouse, one of New Hampshire's busiest, will arraign criminal suspects, process legal motions and otherwise deal with murders, mayhem and contract disputes. What it won't do is hold jury trials.

The economic storm has come to this: Justice is being delayed or disrupted in state courtrooms across the country.

Financially strapped New Hampshire has become a poster child for the problem. Among other cost-cutting measures, state courts will halt for a month all civil and criminal jury trials early next year to save $73,000 in jurors' per diems. Officials warn they may add another four-week suspension.

"It brings our system almost to a screeching halt," said county prosecutor James M. Reams. His aides are scrambling to reschedule 77 criminal trials that were on the February docket.

"All the effort to subpoena witnesses and prepare for those trials is right out the window," Reams said, frustration in his voice. "Internally, it's a monumental waste of time. We'll have to redo everything."

At least 19 other states, including California, have slashed court budgets and other government services as their economies have tanked, said Daniel Hall, vice president of the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit in Williamsburg, Va.

"Courts are there to provide a fair and impartial resolution of disputes," Hall said. "When you start affecting that, you affect who we are."

California cut its judicial branch budget by more than $200 million, or about 10%, in the current fiscal year, and further reductions are almost certain as the state grapples with a projected $40-billion deficit. A Republican proposal unveiled last week, for example, would trim a further $205 million from the judiciary.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's finance department, said it was "not yet clear" whether the judiciary would be granted an exemption to the governor's order to reduce state payrolls by 10% through layoffs and unpaid furloughs.

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Judges usually give such trials priority over civil cases involving broken sidewalks, medical malpractice and the like.

As a result, civil litigation and family law cases are bearing the brunt of the disruptions. And cascading bankruptcies, foreclosures and business disputes have only increased the backlog.

After two rounds of budget cuts in Florida, courts have laid off 280 clerks, lawyers and other staff members, and cut funding for a judges' unit that helps resolve civil disputes. State legislators meeting next month are expected to demand more spending cuts.

An additional 10% reduction would mean "all civil cases in the state of Florida would virtually be suspended," Belvin Perry Jr., chief judge of Florida's 9th Judicial Circuit and chairman of a trial court budget commission, warned a legislative committee in Tallahassee this month.

In Vermont, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul L. Reiber recently proposed closing as many as seven county courts, as well as laying off employees, to help ease a budget deficit. The state already shuts district and family courts half a day each week to save money.

"None of our choices are good," Reiber conceded in a memo to court employees.

With rising joblessness and falling revenues, New Hampshire projects a budget deficit this year of $250 million. The crisis has forced Gov. John Lynch to seek spending cuts across state government, including the judicial system.

John T. Broderick, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, has carved $2.7 million from the judicial budget. In addition to the one-month halt in jury trials and trimming back courtroom security, seven of the state's 59 judgeships will be left vacant through June, when the fiscal year ends. Three of the empty slots are in trial courts.

Worse, Broderick said, he may need to suspend jury trials for another month, and leave open a Supreme Court slot after one of the five justices retires in February. It is the state's only appellate court.

"In my 36 years here as a lawyer and judge, I've never felt as insecure about the state courts in terms of operations and resources as I do now," Broderick said.

Robert J. Lynn, chief justice of the superior courts, which conduct all New Hampshire jury trials, said he fears the delays inevitably will cause damage. "There is some element of 'justice delayed, justice denied,' no doubt about it," he said.

Christopher Keating, executive director of the New Hampshire Public Defender program, said his chief concern now is "people in custody who will endure delays in getting their day in court."

The state Supreme Court threw out two criminal cases this year because trials did not begin within six months of arraignment, the legal limit. Prosecutors fear more cases may be dismissed.

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