Tight Budgets Strap State and Local Courts DELAYED JUSTICE

Article excerpt

IN the frenzied morning atmosphere at Dorchester District Court, assistant court clerk James Buckley rarely finds time to catch his breath.

Dashing from one end of the room to the other, Mr. Buckley answers queries from the lawyers, police officers, and juveniles who crowd into the office.

He scoots back to his desk to answer the telephone; another clerk interrupts with a question.

"I like to keep busy," he says with an exasperated smile. "But what we're doing here is spinning wheels."

With 14 vacant clerical positions, stacks of unfinished filing, and an ancient overhead air conditioner that "makes a racket," work can get pretty frustrating, Buckley acknowledges.

"They've got to bring the court system into the 20th century," he says.

State budget cuts are placing an enormous strain on the already overburdened Massachusetts court system, say legal experts.

According to Massachusetts Bar Association president Leo Boyl, projected funding for the state's courts in fiscal year 1991 is down 10.5 percent from 1989.

In addition, 11 percent of authorized job slots remain vacant, court buildings are deteriorating, and record keeping is outdated and inefficient.

The budget problems facing the Bay State's criminal-justice system are not unique. All over the country, courts are functioning with decreasing resources and increasing caseloads.

More than 98 million new cases were filed in state courts alone in 1988, an increase of more than 4 million filings compared to 1987, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

Legal experts say the problem is particularly severe in urban areas. Northeastern states with budget shortfalls are struggling to cope with crowded court dockets.

In Vermont a backlog of court cases forced a five-month suspension of all civil jury trials last January.

A clogged docket in one New Hampshire county courthouse forced a three-month ban on civil jury trials there last year.

In New York City, crowded conditions are so bad that judges in the Bronx Housing Court hold sessions in 13- by 15-foot miniaturized courtrooms, slightly larger than some elevators.

"The system just scrambles from one crisis to the next," says James Neuhard of the American Bar Association (ABA).

Lawyers and judges often point to the nation's "war on drugs," which has led to a steady stream of arrests and criminal cases.

They argue that although Congress and the Bush administration have allocated more money for police and prosecutors, the underfunded court system barely limps along.

The deluge of court cases has affected all levels in the judicial system. But the impact at the local level is where the average Joe or Jill feels it the most.

It often means the hard-working citizen who wants his "day in court" gets pushed aside, say observers of the system. …