By: James J. Tenn, Jr.
New Hampshire Bar Association
Bar News - May 14 2010
By the time you read this, the issue of additional budget cuts on the judicial branch may be very close to resolution – or may still be in play. Many well-intentioned and knowledgeable people in the judicial, legislative and executive branches are working very hard on this difficult issue.
As most of you are aware, the Governor last month requested that the judicial branch absorb $4 million in cuts – on top of more than $3 million in cuts the courts incurred last fall. The Chief Justice has resisted and asserted that the justice system cannot tolerate these cuts.
The New Hampshire Bar Association has been working to help raise awareness of the difficult budgetary situation facing the court system. While the Chief Justice has been outspoken, the Bar Association also has been a concerned participant in this process and has weighed in actively. We have served as a conduit of information about the essential nature of an adequately funded justice system; we have provided information and support to members to speak to their legislators; and we have solicited from members examples of the real-life impact on clients. Some of you watched a one-hour Bar Association webcast on April 14 that enabled the Chief Justice to speak directly with members on these critical issues. NHBA President-Elect Marilyn McNamara did a terrific job moderating this webcast and our Executive Director and Bar staff worked diligently to produce that broadcast.
On April 15, I joined many other lawyers and leaders of other legal organizations in appearing at the Joint House and Senate Finance Committee public hearing on proposed budget cuts. We do not yet know the outcome, but no matter the result, our involvement in this debate has already had the positive effect of reinvigorating participation by the members of our Bar to heighten awareness of the importance of an efficient, adequately-funded judicial system.
I share with you excerpts of the remarks I made at that important legislative hearing:
My name is Jim Tenn and this year, I have the privilege of serving as the President of the New Hampshire Bar Association. Our Association represents the interests of 5,000 active attorneys.
On behalf of the Bar Association, I speak today to oppose the $4 million reduction in the judicial branch budget. It is my hope that my remarks may provide some useful information to assist you in what I acknowledge is a difficult job in these economic times.
The issue that we face today is whether our state will adhere to the guarantee set forth in the New Hampshire Constitution – a guarantee to provide New Hampshire citizens with access to a meaningful system of justice. Access to justice is not simply an academic concept; it’s a fundamental cornerstone of our constitutional system of government. Part 1, Article 14 of the New Hampshire Constitution guarantees every New Hampshire Citizen the ". . . right to obtain justice freely . . . promptly, and without delay." Today, this Constitutional guarantee is in jeopardy.
New Hampshire citizens, like all citizens in a democratic society, rely upon access to a judicial system to peacefully, predictably and promptly resolve disputes and to enforce the rule of law. We rely upon the courts as a place of last resort to maintain order in our society. Courts ensure that fundamental rights are protected: Courts protect people and families from violence and injury; courts hold those who violate our laws accountable; and courts provide a forum for individuals and businesses to resolve disputes.
As I know you are aware, beginning April 2, 2010 the courts began closing. The courts closed on April 2 and are expected to close 14 more days in this calendar year. Judges and court staff are taking unpaid furlough days in an effort to meet budgetary constraints and cases are coming to a halt. Closing courthouse doors is unprecedented and alarming. These closures deprive New Hampshire citizens of justice, prompt and undelayed. The closures are clear evidence that our court system is fraying.
As it now stands, our courts are struggling to meet the demand. In the present system, New Hampshire citizens are experiencing real-life difficulties and delay. The daily work required is being delayed as court staff vacancies and judicial vacancies remain unfilled. Today hearings are not available in a timely fashion; and orders are unable to be processed promptly. This grows worse as courthouse doors close. People, parents, children, and families are suffering due to inadequate access to the court system. Businesses are being forced to wait too long for resolution of disputes. We must be ever-vigilant and not permit a lack of resources to jeopardize the expectation that courts can provide justice.
Former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Warren E. Burger, noted that ". . . confidence in the Courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people. . ." Destruction of this confidence can do incalculable damage to society if people come to believe that "inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value" and that "the law cannot fulfill its primary function to protect them and their families."
Further cuts will irreparably harm the justice system. New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, in his April 7, 2010 letter to the Governor, advised further cuts will require loss of judge time that will be devastating. "Judge time reductions . . . will jeopardize public safety, deny timely relief to families in crisis, and disrupt business transactions." He has warned that without adequate funding, all civil jury trials will stop; the courts will close more; and additional cuts will pose long-term damage to the judicial system.
The Judicial Branch is a co-equal pillar of the three branches of government. The importance of a strong Judicial Branch traces its roots back to our founding fathers. They recognized that the administration of justice is to be the "firmest pillar of government." And yet today, without adequate funding, that pillar is cracking. I respectfully urge you to provide adequate funding for the court system.
Several members of the legislature have asked court leaders and me how the court system can be more efficient and more responsive to the needs of New Hampshire citizens. Those of us who practice in the courts are aware that court technology lags behind most present-day businesses. A commitment to advancing technology in the courts is a necessary step to improved efficiency. The Supreme Court has formed a Court Innovation Commission to study these and other issues.
While the outcome of legislative action on these budget issues is undetermined, the Bar Association and individual members of our bar must continue to speak up and speak out in support of a justice system that can respond to the needs of New Hampshire citizens.
James J. Tenn, Jr., is the 2009-2010 President of the New Hampshire Bar Association. He is a founding partner of Tenn and Tenn law firm in Manchester.