Lawmakers must not undo circuit court system

Last modified: 5/14/2012 12:00:00 AM
In 2010 the New Hampshire Supreme Court formed an Innovation Commission consisting of business leaders, legislators, members of the public, court staff and others. The charge was challenging, but clear: re-create the administrative model of the judicial branch using 21st-century business practices and take advantage of technology where possible to dramatically cut costs while also assuring full access to justice for all citizens.

We are proud to say we have done that. With strong backing from the House and Senate, the new Circuit Court began operation in July 2011, consolidating the district and probate courts and the family division and creating efficiencies that have saved the state $2.3 million in less than one year. But instead of celebrating that remarkable achievement, in the 11th hour of this legislative session, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Rowe and House Speaker William O'Brien introduced legislation that would strip the circuit court of the very business model that they and their legislative colleagues not only approved but lauded as a model for all of state government.

Centralized management

The proposed legislation would dismantle the centralized management of the circuit court, which business leaders agreed would assure uniformity of process among the courts, achieve efficiencies and control costs. Indeed, it is that centralized management that is directly responsible for the savings of $2.3 million in the first year of operation. The law establishing this new streamlined and cost-effective administration radically downsized the management structure from 52 high-level clerks of court to 18 statewide, and added efficiencies such as a centralized call center that has saved literally hundreds of hours for local court staffs thus allowing staff to attend to their other duties.

What could be the rationale of the sponsors of this legislation who now want to dismantle that system? Publicly, legislators have pointed to concerns they claim to have heard from a few judges who are said to blame the creation of the circuit court for the loss of control over their staffs. In reality, this shift in responsibility for personnel issues occurred more than 20 years ago when the Supreme Court recognized that decisions about personnel require statewide consistency and expertise and should not be made by individual trial judges, who are untrained in human resource law and practice and whose primary job is to hear and decide cases. That responsibility was given to the administrative judges in 1991 and has remained unchanged since then.

Unfair complaint

The sponsors also claim that, due to the circuit court changes, courts no longer have a permanently assigned judge who is familiar with the community. That claim ignores the fact that in 27 out of the circuit court's 32 court locations, the same judge is assigned there on a regular basis. Instead, the sponsors base their claim on the complaints of two or three prosecutors in Rockingham County. Unfortunately, the sponsors failed to acknowledge that Rockingham County is uniquely different from the other nine counties in that three out of the four fulltime judicial positions in that county are vacant and the fourth fulltime judge has been deployed to active military duty for two out of the last five years. Those vacancies have caused us to have to move judges from across the state to sit in the Rockingham County courts. The shortage of judges in Rockingham has nothing to do with how the circuit court is administered. Money to pay for judges is appropriated by the Legislature and appointments are made by the governor and approved by the Executive Council.

We were cautioned that the change required by this model would be difficult and that we would face resistance from both inside and outside the court system. Notwithstanding that caution, we proceeded to make the changes on a schedule that was accelerated by legislative leaders from a 10-year plan that relied upon attrition to a schedule requiring full implementation within one month of passage. The changes were put in place less than one year ago and have proven to be highly effective, as evidenced by the savings achieved to date as well as the success of the call center and other procedural changes.

We know change is not easy and that some people will be unhappy, but that is certainly no reason to suddenly abandon innovation, ignore the demonstrated success of the new system and turn back the clock, which is what this legislation would do.

We urge lawmakers to continue to support us in our effort - as they did so overwhelmingly when we began just 10 months ago.

(Edwin W. Kelly is the administrative judge of the circuit court.)




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