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"A constitutional crisis"

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Seven of the state’s top jurists say a constitutional crisis is brewing in Massachusetts, with legislatively-imposed budget cuts creating a court system that is undermanned, overwhelmed, and increasingly unsafe.

At a panel discussion late Thursday afternoon at the Boston Bar Association, the judges offered a peek inside a court system that is reeling from the loss through attrition of 1,272 employees, nearly a fifth of the workforce, since a hiring freeze was imposed in October 2008. The judges said layoffs could be in store if a House proposal earlier this week to cut spending by 2 percent survives the budget process.

Karyn Schier, chief justice of the Land Court, said she is so accustomed to being shorthanded that she now routinely calls out “All rise” when she enters her courtroom and turns on the recording device herself.

Paula Carey, chief of the Probate and Family Court, said staff shortages are having a ripple effect. Clerks shuttle from one clerk-less court to another. Judges use their own money to buy voice-recognition software because it’s the only way to get their decisions typed. And all the extra work leads more and more people to leave. Carey said 10 judges from the Probate and Family Court retired last year, but only two left because they reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

“We are truly on the brink of a constitutional crisis,” she said.

Barbara Rouse, chief justice of the Superior Court, said the manpower shortage means paperwork moves more slowly, decisions take longer to write, and trials sometimes have to be postponed because there aren’t enough court officers to assure public safety. She said the postponements waste time and money because defendants and witnesses show up but are then told to go home.

Robert Mulligan, the Trial Court’s chief justice for administration and management, said he intends to start hiring court officers despite the hiring freeze. He said he will promote associate court officers into court officer positions and then replace the associate officers with new hires. He said the associate job pays less than $30,000 a year but he has already received 1,400 applicants.

Mulligan said how many court officers eventually get hired will depend on how well qualified the current associate officers are. “If I can get 100, I’ll take 100,” he said. Mulligan said he didn’t know exactly where the money will come from, but the consensus among the judges on the panel was that layoffs and court closings are the only way to shave costs. Mulligan said he must hire more people. “We can no longer run the third branch of government,” he said.

Courts across the country are scaling back, NPR reports, and concern about cutbacks in Massachusetts is nothing new. But Thursday’s panel, which included Supreme Court Justice Margot Botsford and Phillip Rapoza, chief justice of the Appeals Court, gave the issue a much higher profile.

Still, none of the jurists directly criticized the Legislature for failing to fund the courts adequately. Steven Pierce, the chief justice of the Housing Court and a former Republican lawmaker from Westfield, came the closest when he suggested the courts were being treated like an executive branch agency during the budget process. “The judicial branch is a fundamental part of government,” he said. “It’s not an agency.”

Despite an ongoing federal probe of legislative patronage at the Probation Department, which is part of the judicial branch, the Legislature continues to meddle in court affairs. Last year, the Legislature refused to permit court officials to close redundant courthouses, at least until new court administrator Harry Spence is on the job. Spence, who was in the audience, said he starts work Tuesday.

House leaders even continue to meddle in probation matters. In their budget proposal, House officials allowed court officials to transfer money between various accounts to cover deficiencies. But the House spending plan bars any transfer of more than 5 percent of the funds of the Probation Department. “It’s inexplicable,” Mulligan said when asked about the provision.

                                                                                                                                        --BRUCE MOHL



BEACON HILL

Lt. Gov. Tim Murray and state Rep. Dan Winslow go at it over state transportation policy in this new CommonWealth magazine “Face to Face” video.

Joseph Carter, the head of the Massachusetts National Guard, speaks out and denies the 27-year-old rape allegation against him that led Gov. Deval Patrick to place him on administrative leave. Carter says he’s the victim of a “smear” campaign by high-ranking Guard officers.

During a visit to the Berkshires, House Speaker Robert DeLeo explains why he believes that community colleges should remain under the control of their local administrators. Meanwhile,  a Berkshire Eagle editorial considers the “good and the bad” of the DeLeo budget and expresses dismay at the elimination of Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed taxes on soda, candy, and cigarettes saying they “are not exactly the three essential food groups.” House Minority Leader Brad Jones calls the budget a political document in an election year.

The Eagle-Tribune reports that Lawrence’s former DPW commissioner is called before an Essex County grand jury probing Mayor William Lantigua.

CASINOS

Middleboro selectmen have asked state and federal officials to pressure the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to reach a settlement with the town for land and money after a five-year dalliance to build a casino there.

The Aquinnah Wampanoag are looking to build a casino on tribal land in Martha’s Vineyard.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

MassINC’s  “placemaking summit” resonates in Lowell, the Sun reports.

In New Jersey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker rescues a neighbor from a house fire.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes on the NRA in an article in The Daily Beast.

Traditional Catholicism is winning priestly converts, say the authors of a new book in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

ELECTION 2012

US Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren stake out opposite positions on the Buffett Rule, NECN reports. Meanwhile, Political Wire highlights a Huffington Post story noting that although Brown gushes over Fenway Park now, he once wanted to move it.

An anti-immigration group that backed Sen. Scott Brown says he is walking a fine line between his opposition to amnesty programs for illegal immigrants and support for employment visas for Irish nationals.

The American Spectator says Mitt Romney can win this thing if his campaign “stays positive,” though someone might want to ask the Santorum and Gingrich people about the “staying” part.

The top donor to Romney’s super PAC is the Texas home builder who bankrolled the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry in 2004.

Alec MacGillis, on The New Republic site, bemoans what it has all come to when “the possible future First Lady, a woman who by most reports is as dignified as they come, is dragooned into setting up a Twitter account late on a weekday night so she can tweet her outrage over a line spoken on a news network no one watches, and her grown sons then chime in with their own go-mom tweets, and the rest of us get breathless ("game on!").”

The Atlantic charts the election by Cafepress campaign gear sales.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Gov. Deval Patrick said yesterday his administration is reviewing some 2,000 regulations that are more than 12 years old to cut red tape for small businesses.

Good news for Tom Menino’s seaport innovation district:  Start-ups are getting squeezed out of Kendall Square in Cambridge by sky-high rents.

EDUCATION

The Globe reports that a 16-year-old boy committed suicide at a Dorchester charter school.

HEALTH CARE

The for-profit Steward Health Care System has laid off an unspecified number of workers at St. Anne’s Hospital in Fall River.

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA’s Old Colony commuter trains have been inching through the Kingston center crossing and tying up traffic since a truck hit a nearby railway bridge and caused structural damage.

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

US solar developer BrightSource Energy withdraws its planned IPO, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The liquefied natural gas terminal off Gloucester isn’t very busy, what with the warm winter and the low price of natural gas, the Gloucester Times reports.

A lone pilot whale appears to be stranded in New Bedford harbor.

After a spate of delays, an Adams solar project may start construction this summer

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

A New Hampshire police chief is dead and four officers were wounded after they went to execute a drug warrant at a Greenland home yesterday. Authorities now say the shooter and a female who was with him in the home are dead as a result of a murder-suicide or double suicide.

A defiant Tarek Mehanna receives a 17½ year sentence on terrorism charges.  

MEDIA

An Indianapolis Star reporter got all shook up when departing Colts quarterback Peyton Manning called to thank him for his work.

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