BY ETHAN FORMAN AND JULIE MANGANIS
---- — PEABODY — A bill filed by state Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, could add Danvers or Middleton to the caseload of Peabody District Court, a move that could boost the fortunes of Peabody Square and make the court a more bustling one.
Changing the jurisdiction lines to even out caseloads at the courts and bringing Danvers and Middleton over to Peabody — along with Saugus — has been talked about for almost two decades.
In the past fiscal year, the caseload in Salem District Court, where Danvers and Middleton cases are handled now, was almost twice that of Peabody. Salem had 12,630 cases filed in fiscal 2013, while Peabody District Court had 6,863, according to the Massachusetts District Court Department.
Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt was among those who testified in favor of the bill on Beacon Hill. Speliotis said Danvers police favor the move, while Middleton police would prefer to stay in Salem.
“I filed the bill on behalf of Peabody District Court and the city of Peabody,” Speliotis said. “The court, in my opinion, is currently under-utilized, and I think it’s difficult for communities like Danvers to get over there.”
Currently, Peabody District Court covers only Peabody and Lynnfield. Salem District Court serves five communities: Salem, Beverly, Danvers, Middleton and Manchester-by-the-Sea.
Salem District Court is housed in the new $106 million J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. Peabody’s courthouse underwent renovations for accessibility, its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, and other improvements in recent years.
A December 1995 report on district court jurisdictional lines by the chief justice for the administration and management of the trial court recommended that Saugus move to Peabody from Lynn and Danvers and Middleton transfer from Salem to Peabody.
“We’re just looking to help out,” said Peabody District Court Clerk-Magistrate Kevin Finnegan, who testified in support of the bill on Beacon Hill.
Finnegan said the move to bring more cases to Peabody “makes good sense.”
“We’re not looking to steal anybody’s thunder. We’re just trying to help out Salem, which is over-burdened. Quite frankly, we’re a little under-utilized.”
Speliotis said making Peabody District Court a busier place would help revitalize downtown Peabody, bringing increased foot traffic, more business for small restaurants and the possibility of more legal offices in and around Peabody Square.
“It’s another piece to the puzzle,” Speliotis said.
Speliotis said the Middleton police chief is not interested in moving to Peabody, however.
“He likes going to Salem,” Speliotis said, “and that’s OK.”
Speliotis said that even if Middleton does not move to Peabody, it would still make sense to move Danvers.
“I think it’s easier for Danvers police to get to Peabody,” Speliotis said.
It’s a 4-mile trip from the Danvers police station on Ash Street to the courthouse in Salem. It’s 2.5 miles from Danvers to Peabody.
“To be honest with you, it’s easier to park over there,” said Danvers police Chief Neil Ouellette, “and it’s a little bit closer.” Ouellette said his department did not have any problem going to Peabody for jury sessions while the Ruane Judicial Center was under construction.
Finnegan also noted that the Peabody court has free parking and is convenient to Route 128.
It’s not a question of distance for Middleton police Chief James DiGianvittorio. While Peabody District Court is a couple of miles closer to Middleton than Salem, the chief said there is a “comfort factor” in going to Salem. His small-town department does not have a full-time police prosecutor, so different officers take on that duty on different days. They’ve built up a relationship with people in Salem and familiarity there and don’t want to change that.
“It’s just a fact we are established there,” he said.
Over the past decade, Peabody has been designated as the site of special court sessions, including the “Gun Court” that handled a large number of Lynn-area gun cases, and hosted jury trials for Salem while the new courthouse was being built.
“For me, it seems like good-government policy,” said Finnegan, a former state representative from Newburyport in the 1990s.
The bill, filed at the start of the legislative session last year, is still in committee, Speliotis said. It was held up when former Chelsea state Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty gave up his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee to become Boston’s chief legal counsel. After its March 20 deadline passed, the bill has been given more time to report out.
Getting the change in jurisdiction may not be easy, because it might touch off requests for changes in other court jurisdictional lines in other parts of the state, Speliotis said.
“I think I have to have the political stars to line up,” Speliotis said. “It’s not an easy task.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.
Fiscal 2013 court filings
Salem District Court — 12,630
Peabody District Court — 6,863
Source: Massachusetts District Court