State Courts: “A Catastrophe in Slow Motion”

Earlier this week I attended a speech by Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Robert Cordy who spoke with great passion about the fiscal crisis now facing the state’s judiciary. After reviewing the extent of the funding cuts over the past five years, Cordy argued that the courts should not be treated the same as other branches of government when it comes to budget cuts. You can always defer maintenance of a road, he said, but you can’t defer the adjudication of a legal matter without dire consequences. This is particularly true because in tough economic times, the volume of litigation tends to go up as does the percentage of litigants who forsake lawyers and represent themselves, a situation that puts even greater demands on the time of judges and support personnel. Cordy said that the negative consequences of repeated cuts in funding are beginning to manifest themselves and will only get worse. When you add to this situation the “unprecedented level of attacks on the judiciary” in our political spheres and “a declining knowledge of civics” among our people, the result is “a catastrophe in slow motion.”

Justice Cordy emphasized that the Massachusetts Constitution, written long ago by John Adams, is a “civic jewel” that is being copied around the world by most of the nations that have won their freedom in the past two decades. He noted the irony that while the state constitution has become a model the world over, the state judiciary has been left “gasping for breath” by unpredictable funding. He quoted former Chief Justice Margaret Marshall who said that the judiciary is the oxygen of a democracy, “you don’t realize its value until you don’t have it anymore.”

Cordy cited a number of reforms and innovations now underway such as a greater reliance on technology and a more flexible workforce as appropriate responses from within, but he also called for a “new conversation with the other branches of government about the role of the judiciary” and cautioned that with a population that is constantly growing older and more diverse, the role of the courts in society will grow ever greater and that it is incumbent on all of us to address this crisis as soon as possible.