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Jury Still Out on N.H. Court Overhaul

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Let’s say your teenager gets caught shoplifting. Or maybe your Uncle Morty dies and you’ve got to settle his estate.

There’s court paperwork, forms, fees, continuances and motions. It’s confusing.

"Circuit court, Wanda speaking, can I help you?"

Wanda Toury is here to help.

"When was he arrested? Was it this weekend? Okay. Spell his last name…"

Toury is one of about 20 representatives at a new centralized call center in Concord.

Clerks in the local courthouses used to be inundated with these types of routine phone calls. The constant ringing slowed down their processing of New Hampshire’s 190,000 annual lower-court cases.

The call center has been a major boon to efficiency, and is one of the hallmarks of the new Circuit Court system.

And there’s one man who most of these changes trace back to.

"My name is Ed Kelly, and I’m the Administrative Judge of the Circuit Court."

Kelly is proud of the call center. The idea came out of a commission he put together consisting of business leaders, court veterans and management-types.

They identified ways to increase efficiencies in the courts; changes they wanted to roll out over a ten-year period.

"The legislature of course told us that they wanted it done within, what amounted to, 30 days," says Kelly.

So, one year ago, New Hampshire’s court system underwent a swift and massive restructuring.

The state’s three lower courts—probate, family and district—were collapsed into one Circuit Court system.

Judges could now rotate around the State as needed to cover hearings. And to cut costs, the plan called for layoffs.

Judge Kelly met with his staff of 52 clerks…

"And essentially told them that they would all be invited to apply for their jobs. And there would only be 18 jobs available for them…very, very difficult conversation that we had with them," says Kelly.

For Sherry Bisson, it was a really stressful time. She's worked in the court system for 27 years.

She was a clerk in Manchester when she found out she’d have to reapply for her job.

"To not know what the end result was going to be, is, is difficult," says Bisson. "And to not know if you were actually going to have a position to go to at the end of all of it was scary."

Bisson was re-hired, and transferred to the Nashua Circuit Court.

She says that as terrible as the uncertainty and layoffs were, the courts do function better now.

And with a total of 78 fewer workers in the system, it’s cheaper for the state.

"The payroll for the Circuit Court is $1.5m less for this year, than it was last year, "says Kelly.

By all accounts, the restructuring has been a success.  

That’s why Kelly was surprised when a bill turned up in the statehouse last month that he says would have rolled back all that progress.

Representative Robert Rowe co-sponsored the legislation. He’s head of the House Judiciary Committee, and is a fan of the Circuit Court system.  

But Rowe says it needs some tweaks.

"You just cannot have all the authority in the central office, "says the bow-tied Republican from Amherst. He doesn’t like the fact that lower-court Judges don’t have the power to hire, fire or even discipline the staff of their respective courts.

"It’s like saying the CEO of General Electric manages every single one of their offices directly," says Rowe.

There has to be some decentralization.

Human resources have been handled out of Concord since the early 1990s. Judge Kelly argues it’s the only way to ensure compliance with labor laws and uniformity in the system.

He says that if judges are unhappy with a clerk, they can always just pick up the phone.

Representative Rowe’s bill died in the Senate.

Judge Kelly says it shows the challenges of making major changes to a bureaucracy in a 30-day window.

"It would be unfair for me to say that nobody has questions about the new system. And any new system, as dramatic as this one, and had to be put in place as quickly as this one, we expected and did receive concern from some judges," says Kelly.

Another concern facing the system is the high number of judicial vacancies. There are supposed to be 35 sitting Circuit Court judges, but ten seats are currently empty, along with seven part-time positions.

Rockingham County bears the brunt of those holes, where judges rotate in and out on a daily basis to cover hearings.

To plug the gaps, Governor Lynch is expected to make nominations this summer.

If approved, those additional justices will join a streamlined Circuit Court system still getting used to its new structure, one year in.


Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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