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Reports of imminent court closure possibly premature

Date: 8/2/2011

Aug. 3, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD — Reports of the imminent closure of the Westfield District Court might just be premature.

“Nothing can happen for 90 days from the time the [Trial Court’s closure] plan is submitted to the Legislature and that plan has not been submitted,” State Sen. Michael Knapik said.

Though the list of recommended court closures was released publicly on July 12, Knapik said, “The clock is not ticking.”

Knapik told Reminder Publications he and a group fellow legislators have been in discussions with Judge Robert Mulligan, chief justice for Administration and Management for the Trial Court regarding the Trial Court’s recent recommendation to close the Westfield court — and 10 other courts across the state — as a cost saving measure.

According to Knapik, the state’s judiciary system received a 16 percent budget cut for fiscal year 2012 and the closures have been predicted to save $3.5 million for the department.

The meetings were the result, Knapik said, of a letter sent to Mulligan by Senate Chairwoman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary Cynthia Creem of Newton, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester and a bipartisan group of legislators requesting more information about the closure decisions.

Specifically, the letter asked for details regarding the cost savings, efficiencies and short-and long-term costs associated with the proposed closures. It also asked for information regarding the impact on the courts that would be required to absorb case loads and the specifics used to decide which courts would be closed.

“He has given us some data — rents, costs, square footage, caseloads, He’s been very forthcoming and given us some recommendations,” Knapik said.

He said the closure of a district court such as the one in Wrentham — which has facilities issues such as a lack of running water in the lockup and is situated close to a recently constructed mega-court in Plymouth — might make sense.

Closing the district court in Westfield — which Knapik said would both create a hardship for residents of small towns such as Granville and Tolland who use the court’s services and increase the burden on the other Western Massachusetts district courts — might not be sensible.

On the one hand, he said closing the Westfield court creates an issue with what is called “access to justice.”

“You get outside of Springfield and there is virtually no public transportation,” Knapik said. “You move the court out of Westfield and you might as well be going to Boston for some people.”

He also noted that the Springfield District Court, one of the Western Massachusetts courts that would have to absorb Westfield’s caseload, is “the busiest court in the state.”

The caseloads in the Chicopee and Holyoke courts are equally busy, he added.

Knapik did acknowledge that the rent for the court space in Westfield is “very high — I don’t think you can’t overlook that,” but that the state, in general, is happy with the space and the landlord has been willing to make concessions in the past.

“There’s a reason [the Westfield District Court] is [located] where it is, and has been since 1890,” Knapik said. “I think we have a very strong case for our region, and we’re going to make that case.”

Nevertheless, Knapik said the legislature is sensitive to the plight of the state’s judiciary system, which is currently anticipating the layoff of 300 to 400 employees.

He said the judiciary has been operating with a mere 2.3 percent of the state’s budget for some time, and the 16 percent cut to its resources during the past three years has seriously strapped the courts.

“They’ve had a hiring freeze, most of the state has not, and to their credit, they have worked to absorb the reduction without layoffs,” Knapik said, adding that the judiciary “hasn’t told its story well” up until now, something that has come to light in the recent meetings.

“The Legislature is saying ‘We want to help,’” Knapik said. “We want a well-thought out plan for [court] closures ... there are 101 courts in Massachusetts — that’s how it’s evolved over 350 years — and we want to redesign it for the 21st century.”

Knapik said he expects the meetings with Mulligan and other members of the Trial Court’s administration team regarding court closures to continue through August.

He said that toward the end of August, it is likely the Legislature will have a supplemental spending bill that might be able to address some of the court’s fiscal needs.

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