BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Come February, the red brick Rockingham County Courthouse, one of New Hampshire's busiest, will arraign criminal suspects, process legal motions and otherwise deal with murders, mayhem and contract disputes. What it won't do is hold jury trials.
The nation's economic storm has come to this: Justice is being delayed or disrupted in many state courtrooms across the country.
New Hampshire has become a poster child for the problem. Among other cost-cutting measures, state courts will halt civil and criminal jury trials for a month early next year to save thousands of dollars on jurors' per diems. Officials warn they may add another four-week suspension.
"It brings our system almost to a screeching halt," complained James Reams, the Rockingham County prosecutor. His aides are scrambling to reschedule 77 criminal trials that were on the February docket.
"All the effort to subpoena witnesses and prepare for those trials is right out the window," Reams said. "Internally, it's a monumental waste of time. We'll have to redo everything."
At least 19 other states, including Florida, have slashed court budgets and other government services as their economies have tanked, said Daniel Hall, vice president at the National Center for State Courts — a nonprofit, nonpartisan group based in Williamsburg, Va.
California cut its judicial branch budget by more than $200-million, or about 10 percent, in the current fiscal year, and further reductions are almost certain as the state grapples with a projected $40-billion deficit.
Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Judges therefore usually give such trials priority over civil cases involving broken sidewalks, medical malpractice and the like.
As a result, civil litigation and family law cases are bearing the brunt of the disruptions. Making matters worse, a financial tsunami of bankruptcies, foreclosures and business disputes have increased the backlog.