Judge Dalianis speaks out against move to give lower judges control over their courts
CONCORD – Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Dalianis of Nashua has vigorously opposed a move to give back to lower judges full management control over their courts.
House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, co-authored the proposal that significantly dilutes the overhaul of the judicial branch, which he championed in the current two-year state budget.
Dalianis told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the proposed amendment would return the court system to before the mid-1980s, when court procedures varied greatly from place to place.
In 2001, she acted upon the findings of an innovation commission to create circuit courts that combined district, probate and family court operations to make the system more efficient with less personnel.
“We made the choice, with the backing of the Legislature, to run the judicial branch on a 21st century model,” Dalianis said. “In so doing, we cannot make every single judge happy.”
The circuit court needs more time to be fully deployed statewide and create the savings and the expectations of consistency for customers in the system of justice, she said.
“We should be congratulating each other for this achievement and not try to undercut it,” Dalianis said.
Londonderry Police prosecutor Kevin Coyle said that with 17 vacancies statewide, local courts are subject to the rapid rotation of judges who have different ways of doing things.
“I don’t want to go back to the dark ages; I don’t think anybody here does,” Coyle said. “There have been some advantages that have come from the circuit court, but they want to bring about some stability and having a presiding judge in an existing court is important.”
Since 1984, administrative judges have made assignments of judges to local courts, and the circuit court system gives expanded powers to administrators to hire, fire or deploy staff.
The amended bill (SB 354) would require that all 32 district courts have a presiding judge who would have “management authority” over the district, including the deployment of staff and managing services.
Retired Concord District Court Judge Michael Sullivan called “nonsensical and frankly suspect” the amendment from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Rowe, R-Amherst, and Speaker O’Brien.
“I tell you this is a bad amendment. It would return the circuit court to the horse and buggy era,” Sullivan said.
Eric Herr of Hill chairs the Judicial Council, a board that provides assistance and information about the state’s courts. He is a management efficiency expert, having founded Autodesk, and has run other Fortune 500 companies.
Peeling away part of the circuit court model would leave “a lot of money on the table,” he said.
Nina Gardner, executive director of the Judicial Council, said it’s not a good enough reason to dilute the circuit courts because individual judges or staff don’t like the new system.
“If you roll back the efficiencies you have heard described, I know there are judges that don’t like some of the changes this has brought but that is what change does,” Gardner said. “To wholesale undo this process because there is somebody not comfortable with it, I think it is really a bad way to make a law.”
Prosecutors and staff at Derry District Court have told the House staff that the new system is unworkable because every session day brings a new visiting judge.
Retired Judge Sullivan, who has subbed in the Derry court, notes that local Justice John Coughlin was missing two of the past five years on the bench because he was working as a judge advocate during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Heather Newell, a police prosecutor who’s worked in several courts including Salem and Derry, agreed that each large local court like Nashua’s needs a judge who is there regularly and this amendment would assure that happens.
“I don’t think this is a couple of people or one court with the problem. I have seen this issue come up at a number of circuit courts,” she said.
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