Failing Courthouses: It’s Time for All Lawyers to Step Up to the Plate

As seen in the August 27 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly:

For me, it’s the Middlesex Probate & Family Court, most notably its serpentine maze that lawyers, litigants, witnesses and the public must negotiate to reach Courtroom 5. For others, it may be the dark and crumbling Superior Court in Taunton or the neglected District Court in Greenfield. You may have your own "favorite" worst courthouse.

Yes, progress has been made. New courthouse buildings are due to open in Plymouth and Worcester. Salem is much improved. Some work has been accomplished in Springfield. Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan has made a difference.

Despite the CJAM’s efforts, however, our courts, especially the older ones, continue to cry out for help. They are still plagued by leaky roofs, antiquated boilers, lack of space for law clerks, unsafe corridors for judges, holding "cells" with prisoners chained to chairs or desks and without toilet facilities, poor air quality, the lack of functional fire alarm systems, and poor ADA and Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) compliance.

A cursory review of the Court Capital Repair Needs Assessment (CCRNA) of April 2 (i.e., deferred maintenance, not including funds for replacement or consolidated comprehensive justice centers) underscores the shortcomings of the edifices that house our system of justice.

According to the CCRNA, the Ayer District Court requires more than $7 million in renovations, nearly half to make it ADA/MAAB compliant.

The relatively new Edward W. Brooke Courthouse requires $1.3 million to replace its sprinkler heads. The Suffolk County courthouse needs nearly $80 million in repairs ($16 million in masonry work alone).

And the list goes on and on: Brighton District Court, $7.8 million; Brockton trial court, $1.1 million; East Cambridge trial court, $8.5 million, Cambridge Probate & Family Court, $33.4 million; Woburn District Court, $6.5 million.

In total, the CCRNA identifies some $570 million in essential repairs; a mere $45 million — about 8 percent of the required total — has been allocated.

Massachusetts houses more courts (100+) than virtually any other state in the union. Our forefathers envisioned a commonwealth in which its citizens enjoyed easy access to justice.

They proposed three branches of government, one of which would, in certain respects, stand above the others, occupying sacred ground, adjudicating disputes among its citizens expeditiously and fairly.

Our judicial system was meant to stand a little taller, a little statelier than the legislative battlefield or the prerogative-based executive. Our courts were meant to convey, by word, by deed and by physical appearance, their crucial justice-dispensing role.

And to fulfill that role, courthouses must communicate the message to members of the public that they have arrived at a safe location, at a destination enveloped in fairness, at a facility that exudes respect, equality and measured judgment.

For many people, their only — or at least their most significant — contact with government will be at the courthouse. Society’s dim view of lawyers cannot be disassociated from the sad condition of so many of our courthouses.

I am an unabashed fan and supporter of our new governor. I believe in his vision and his ability to deliver. However, he just line-item vetoed allocations of critical importance to our system of justice. Moreover, if you read the Patrick-Murray Administration Governing Agenda, there is not a single reference to our court system.

It is up to us who are lawyers to make the case and to support Mulligan’s and others’ efforts to make our system of justice what it was intended and ought to be.

If we lawyers do not agitate for basic judicial needs, no one will. We are losing ground everyday. It is time to make the role of law in society and the sanctity of our system of justice the top priority of every member of the bar.