By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: February 13, 2009
The governor’s proposal to move Keene District Court to the Cheshire County Courthouse is drawing the ire of city and county law enforcement officials.
Gov. John H. Lynch recommended Thursday that eight district courts in the state be consolidated with existing facilities, some in different towns or cities, as part of a broad cost-saving plan that includes shuttering the state prison in Laconia, cutting 300 state jobs and closing up to 16 state liquor stores.
The city’s District Court would be moved from Washington Street to the Superior Court facility on Court Street. What happens to Superior Court — whether it stays in its already cramped county-owned building or moves into another facility, most likely Jaffrey-Peterborough District Court — remains unknown.
“All options are on the table in terms of where things are going to be located,” said state judicial branch spokeswoman Laura A. Kiernan. “We just want to make the best use of everything we have at the lowest cost we can to do the work we need to do to preserve jobs.”
Lynch’s proposal would not include laying off any of the 22 employees, six part-time judges and one full-time judge at the eight district courts under consideration for consolidation, Kiernan said.
The consolidation proposal would save an estimated $2 million in costs associated with security contracts for the courts and rent payments for the buildings they occupy, she said.
The proposal doesn’t sit well with Cheshire County Attorney Peter W. Heed.
“Those little courtrooms upstairs in Superior Court, they wouldn’t hold everybody,” Heed said. “Our courtrooms are better suited for handling marital issues than jury trials.”
The Superior Court clerk’s office is already understaffed and overworked, Heed said, and the same thing is happening in Keene District Court, which is one of the busiest in the state.
Eight hundred felony cases went through Cheshire County Superior Court last year, according to Heed. Hundreds of civil cases, which take a back seat to the criminal cases, are also heard at the court.
Keene District Court saw 5,650 criminal cases, 640 small claims cases, 295 civil cases, 340 tenant or landlord matters, 175 domestic violence petitions and 305 juvenile cases last year, according to court Clerk Larry Kane.
Like Superior Court, Keene District Court has outgrown its facility, according to Kane, who said the building also lacks adequate security to deal with the prisoners going in and out each day.
A year ago, there were eight employees in the District Court clerk’s office. Two have left or retired and were not replaced because of state budget issues, Kane said, leaving the remaining employees in a constant scramble to keep up with the extra work.
In Superior Court, Clerk Barbara A. Hogan has said her understaffed office was also mired in a severe backlog of civil cases because of hiring freezes that left vacant judge seats empty.
“If you need two hours for a (civil) trial, I can give it to you in a couple of months or quicker if you can come in on a cancellation,” she said in a previous interview. “But if you need a week-long trial, we’re talking five or six months if you want a guaranteed slot.”
Hogan was out of the office and could not be reached for comment. The deputy clerk declined comment as did the Jaffrey-Peterborough District Court clerk.
While combining District Court and Superior Court could create a logjam of civil and criminal cases along with a logistical nightmare, moving either court to the Jaffrey facility would lead to another tremendous headache, city and county law enforcement officials said.
“I understand there are huge financial pressures, but to move either court to Jaffrey, that might help the state’s budget, but imagine what it would do to the prosecutors, sheriff’s office and police, not to mention all the other people coming to court,” Heed said. “You just don’t move the courts away from your major population, and we’ve just made a huge decision to move the county jail closer to the courts and Keene.”
If the county prosecutors’ offices stayed in Keene and Superior Court moved to Jaffrey, Heed said he’d be forced to hire new staff and increase his budget to deal with a round-trip commute that takes more than an hour.
“Prosecutors go downstairs to their offices and work between hearings,” he said. “You move the court to Jaffrey and then my prosecutors have to go down there and sit there all day. They can’t go back and forth. They can’t get any work done.”
Sheriff Richard A. Foote said moving Superior Court to Jaffrey would raise his expenses, too. His deputies transport prisoners back and forth from area courts to the Cheshire County jail in Westmoreland, soon to be replaced by a $38.8 million facility in Keene.
“We go to Jaffrey anyway, because we bring prisoners there for court, but not every day and that’s not an easy drive either, especially in the winter,” he said. “It would cost more for driving expenses and salaries to pay for the driving time. If we had to drive there daily for court, there would be a lot of things I’d have to look at to see how we’d handle it.”
Keene Police Chief Arthur Walker said his officers and detectives are in both city courts daily, testifying or checking on the status of their cases, and having them drive to Jaffrey would be a major expense and inconvenience.
“We have the advantage of being in town now. The court can call us 30 minutes before a hearing,” he said. “If you’re going to Jaffrey, you pretty much have to resign yourself to being there most of the day. You would be paying police officers to drive back and forth to Jaffrey rather than doing police work.”
Heed and other local officials have proposed having the District Court, Superior Court, Family Court and prosecutors’ offices in one large building in Keene.
“That’s the solution I think we really need,” Heed said. “It’s what makes sense.”
State Rep. Timothy N. Robertson, D-Keene, said he needed to study the details of the consolidation plan, but his initial reaction was negative.
“Why wouldn’t Jaffrey come to Keene? We’re a much bigger city. It seems to me there would be more business here,” he said. “More lawyers are located here and it’s closer to the jail.”
No matter what happens with Lynch’s budget proposal, it appears that Keene District Court will be moving. Its lease with the city expires in July and court officials have been searching for a more appropriate building for years.
Talks have centered on the former Latchis Theater building in downtown Keene, which state administrators rejected because it would require extensive renovation, or the city government complex at 350 Marlboro St.
The latter proposal drew fire from state judicial officials who were concerned about having a courthouse share a space with a police station.
The sheriff’s office is located in the basement of the Superior Court facility and Heed said he sees no problem with moving either court to the city government building.
“The Superior Court should be in Keene in the county seat. There’s a reason it’s always been here, because it serves the people of Cheshire County,” he said. “Both courts need to stay here.”