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May 26, 2011

Budget Cutbacks Undermine Massachusetts Constitution

Recently, the Boston Bar Association issued a report on the proposed Massachusetts budget for 2012. The report is titled “Justice on the Road to Ruin,” and makes clear that the Massachusetts court system has been making do with too little for too long. Within the past three years, the total funding for the court system has been reduced by more than 14 percent. Positions are going unfilled, dockets are becoming clogged, and the court system is trying not to do more with less, but merely to stay afloat.

One of the early casualties of the budget process was trial court law clerks. These recently graduated law students assisted the judges in the various trial departments – the Superior Court, the Land Court, the Family & Probate Court, and the Juvenile Court – with research and writing opinions and decisions.

The loss of these positions may strike some critics as inconsequential. Why, they might ask, can’t the judges do their own research and writing?

Many judges would probably like to do more research and writing, but the fact is, they are busy judging. They are hearing cases, meeting with attorneys, and attending to the many administrative matters that keep the Massachusetts court system running. They do not have much time left for the kind of in-depth research that, say, a complicated motion for summary judgment requires.

What this means is that trial court litigants may not fully appreciate why they lost their motion or case, and it could mean they are unsure of the grounds on which they might appeal. Further, as one appellate judge told me, in the long term, fewer narrative decisions and opinions mean more work for the appellate courts in reconstructing the basis for the trial court’s determination.

A tangential result of the increased time that state appellate courts must devote simply to understanding the lower court’s ruling is less time, in constitutional cases, to devote to the hard work of interpreting the state constitution. Massachusetts state constitutional claims arise in many criminal and individual rights cases, and the Commonwealth’s appellate courts have a long and storied history of taking seriously the task of figuring out just what it is that the state constitution means in a particular instance, often concluding that it provides more protection than its federal counterpart.

Budget cutbacks necessarily undermine serious efforts at state constitutional interpretation. As I explain in an article forthcoming in the Penn State University Law Review, a lack of time and law clerk resources inhibit the ability of state courts to fully develop their own constitutional law, which results in recourse by these courts to the principles announced by the U.S. Supreme Court, interpreting the federal constitution.

Now, there may be reasons why similarly-worded constitutional state and federal protections should be interpreted in similar ways. But it does not bode well for the future of Massachusetts state constitutional interpretation if the meaning of the federal constitution becomes by default the meaning of the Massachusetts Constitution, simply because the Commonwealth’s appellate courts are unable to do more. That is a loss not just for litigants pressing novel state constitutional arguments in our courts; it is a loss for any citizen who might claim the protection of the Massachusetts Constitution in the future – which is to say, a loss for all of us.

Lawrence Friedman

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