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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chief Justice Dalianis addresses electronic court filings, budget issues in interview with The Telegraph

CONCORD – Sometimes the best laid schemes of judges and men go astray, especially when a messy legislative process gums up the works.

In an interview with The Telegraph a year ago, Linda Dalianis, the state Supreme Court chief justice, touted an initiative designed to save money and improve public service. That system, called the N.H. e-Court Project, would enable people to make court filings and pay fines online. The program anticipated launching a pilot program in summer 2013 with one of the state’s smaller superior courts as the caseload there was lighter than in larger counties, or in a circuit court. ...

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CONCORD – Sometimes the best laid schemes of judges and men go astray, especially when a messy legislative process gums up the works.

In an interview with The Telegraph a year ago, Linda Dalianis, the state Supreme Court chief justice, touted an initiative designed to save money and improve public service. That system, called the N.H. e-Court Project, would enable people to make court filings and pay fines online. The program anticipated launching a pilot program in summer 2013 with one of the state’s smaller superior courts as the caseload there was lighter than in larger counties, or in a circuit court.

In a wide-ranging interview last month, Dalianis spoke about changes to that project thanks to the vagaries of the Legislature and the funding process, as well as other funding challenges a full third of the state’s government is facing and her contortions to deal with them in the wake of a new governor and state Legislature.

In New Hampshire, the supreme court chief justice, besides presiding over the state’s highest court, also serves as head of the judicial branch. In the recent interview, Dalianis explained that funding for the e-Court pilot was to happen in two batches. The judiciary got the first bundle, $1.2 million, but the second batch was attached to a bill ultimately defeated by the previous Legislature “and the money went down with it,” Dalianis said.

The court went to “Plan B,” Dalianis said.

The $1.2 million available from the first batch of funding “was not enough for a whole court,” so instead, the decision was made to pilot small claims cases across the state, although not in every district division, Dalianis said.

“It’s a fairly simple case type,” with the overwhelming majority of parties representing themselves without an attorney, making it ideal for electronic filings, the chief justice said.

The idea was to have a result so they could show the state Legislature that “we have not thrown the money into a black hole,” she said.

“A huge amount of work has been done,” with the “basic architecture” of the project created and a vendor slated to be selected soon, Dalianis said. When it gets up and running, court clerks will be able to provide basic information to people filing, she said.

“Eventually, all e-filings will be mandatory,” Dalainis said, without naming a timeline for when that might occur.

The new governor, Maggie Hassan, budgeted $3.5 million for the e-Court Project, but Dalianis cautioned, “The vagaries of the budget process being what they are, I don’t know how his will all turn out in the end.”

In her March 2012 interview with The Telegraph’s editorial board, Dalianis addressed scuttled plans to consolidate Hillsborough County Superior Court South, in Nashua, with the court’s northern branch in Manchester.

Under that plan, which Dalianis proposed to save money, Nashua’s Spring Street courthouse would be used only by the 9th Circuit Court, with the superior court portion closing.

In her recent interview, Dalianis, a Nashua resident, repeated that the court merger is a dead issue.

“I felt, as chief, I had a responsibility to be a good steward of the taxpayer dollar. I believed last year, and I still believe, that there is at least a half million dollars and probably more going forward of savings per year to be had by consolidating the Hillsborough County Superior Court back into what remains now less than a half-full brand new facility (in Manchester),” Dalianis said.

There was significant push-back from Nashua officials, including Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and Chris Williams, president of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, and Dalianis gave up on the idea.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a dead issue. I will never bring it up again,” she said.

In fact, the Nashua superior court branch is slated to get one of two new judges included in the governor’s biennial budget proposal. Rockingham County would get the other, Dalianis said.

At roughly 1,700 case filings per judge a year, the caseloads in those two superior courts are double what the caseloads are in smaller courts – Carroll County Superior Court, for example, Dalianis said.

Dalianis also addressed Lozeau’s comments in the mayor’s recent State of the City address that the state saved money and enhanced the efficiency of the local courts by closing Nashua District Court on Walnut Street and moving the court into the Spring Street superior court building. Nashua district court in now part of the 9th Circuit Court, which includes small claims, civil and family courts.

The city hopes to either buy the former Walnut Street courthouse, or see a business move into the facility, Lozeau said.

“We’ve been trying to do that for years,” Dalianis said. “In fact, in every location where we’ve been able to get capital funds to put up a new facility, we have co-located the courts. It doesn’t make sense to have 70 different little courts out there.”

Many of the small courts have been absorbed into the circuit court system, Dalianis said. However, there still are 44 court locations in the state, she said.

In the biennial budget before last, the judicial department “proposed consolidating several small courts and got instant push-back from the Legislature,” Dalianis said.

Some legislators took the position of, “It’s fine to close somebody else’s court but don’t you dare close mine,” Dalianis said.

Co-locating Nashua’s superior and districts courts was fairly simple because they were so close and the move didn’t require any legislative action. However, the cost savings for consolidating the courts were minimal, Dalianis said.

For example, there were more rooms in use to heat, light, clean and otherwise maintain with district court moved to superior court, offsetting much of the cost savings by closing the Walnut Street building, Dalianis said.

Among her other priorities regarding facilities, Dalianis hopes funding will emerge to build a new Milford circuit courthouse.

“I think it is unsuitable for a courthouse to be in a strip mall next to a pizza place. It’s undignified. Lord knows it’s a decent place, and we make good use of it, but a courthouse should be something, in my view, more than that,” she said.

Among other cost-saving measures is a push for more video-conferencing on civil and family matters, Dalianis said.

Currently, criminal courts frequently arraign or hold bail hearings via video so prisoners don’t have to be transported to court from a police station or county jail.

As another cost savings, the judicial system is in the midst of cutting 32 full-time positions, but adding 66 part-time positions. That process started in May 2011 and should finish early this year, according to Dalianis.

The cuts were made through attrition whenever possible, and by some employees opting to work part time. The end result was a savings of roughly $400,000 a year, according to Dalianis.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Meighan on Twitter (@Telegraph_PatM.)