Open forum held at Edgartown court
Representatives from several Island organizations were both critical and approving of the Island court system at a forum held at the Edgartown courthouse Thursday. Clerk magistrate Liza Williamson said the main concerns expressed by the nearly 35 people in attendance were the lack of space and security issues at the current location in downtown Edgartown.
"That was the main issue," Ms. Williamson said about the space constraints. "But, of course, that's one of the things we can't really control."
The Supreme Judicial Court initiated the open forum, titled "Evaluating the administration of justice in the Edgartown district court," and similar discussions have already taken place in 13 other Massachusetts communities.
Participants included representatives from the Martha's Vineyard Mediation Program, Women's Support Services and the Vineyard House, along with Island police chiefs, court staff and attorneys. A panel including presiding Judge Gregory Williams, Associate Justice John Julian, head administrative assistant Jean Wunsch, and Ms. Williamson answered questions. Supreme Judicial Court executive director Dr. Ronald Corbett moderated the forum.
The court initiated the open forum so Island personnel who interact with the court system on a regular basis could give suggestions for improvement. In a conversation following the forum, Ms. Williamson said the overall attitude was that the court was doing well with they resources they have, but improvements could be made.
"We don't want to get complacent and out of touch with what is going on, and complacent with what we do," Ms. Williamson said. "It was a good opportunity for us to ask, how are we doing?"
The elderly Edgartown courthouse, which is owned by the county and leased to the state, houses the Edgartown District Court, Dukes County Superior Court, family and probate court, juvenile court and the registry of deeds office. The building has only one main courtroom, so various offices and conference rooms double as backup locations for court proceedings.
Despite the cramped working quarters, in fiscal 2005 the Edgartown court had approximately 1,400 criminal complaints filed, which sets them on par with mainland communities like Newton, Natick, and South Boston. And judging by comments at Thursday's forum, the space crunch is felt by court staff, Ms. Williamson said.
Various lawyers and assistant district attorney Laura Marshard said they often can't find a space to confer privately with witnesses and victims. And even official court proceedings get crowded, Ms. Williamson said. When the main courtroom is occupied, hearings and dispositions are held in a room downstairs or in the law library. The basement of the Whaling Church next door is even used by the probate court.
"I just called a small claims list in a packed hallway downstairs during our jury session," Ms. Williamson said. "I called it literally in the hallway. We are really doing everything we can do."
Currently there is little talk of constructing a new courthouse in a more spacious location, but it is something she would actively support if a plan came up, Ms. Williamson said.
The space crunch fed into a discussion about security concerns. Ms. Williamson advocated for, and saw through, the implementation of a walk-through metal detector and x-ray machine that was installed at the entrance to the courthouse in January. Ms. Williamson said at the time that the Edgartown courthouse was the only facility besides its counterpart on Nantucket that did not have such security items.
Security in the form of guards was also increased, but it's still not enough, Ms. Williamson said. "People felt that the physical space issue posed a security issue," Ms. Williamson said. "Often times we have 90 people down in the lower courtroom, where the ones in custody sit in chairs against the wall. It's not a safe environment for people to be in." She added that she is continually working to get more security in the courthouse, but the lack of resources often acts as a roadblock.
She said the open forum was also a good chance for court staff and affiliated organizations to complement each other on what they were doing well. Communication appears to be strong between the various departments, Ms. Williamson said, and that tends to spill over into the civilian participation. "It was a nice discussion and perhaps it will create a local coalition of people who can start fighting for a new courthouse or new space," she said. "There's no question it's needed."
Ms. Williamson joked that staff members alerted one another to pilfered pens, and discussed ways to pool resources more effectively.
"There's a false perception that we're not as busy as other courts, because it's the Vineyard. And it's just not true," Ms. Williamson said. "Some people felt that it was perhaps at a political level or perhaps they're not aware of our needs and we need to get together to have a stronger voice."