Over the past two weeks, we began our annual series of presidential meetings with the chief justices of various courts and court departments in Massachusetts. Thus far, BBA President Julia Huston and staff have met with Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula M. Carey and Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence, Chief Justice of the Probate & Family Court Angela M. Ordoñez, Chief Justice of the Housing Court Steven D. Pierce, and Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Patti B. Saris. In keeping with our commitment to appropriate funding for the courts, and to access to justice, we discussed ways the BBA can assist specific court departments in achieving their goals for the upcoming fiscal year and beyond. Here are some takeaways from these sessions:
- Access to Justice: The Trial Court is looking to expand on the successful Court Service Center (CSC) programs. The Brooke Courthouse CSC alone served 1,500 people in the last three months, mostly for domestic cases. The Probate & Family Court is working on the same front, attempting to expand its Family Court Workshops to help those in need with their legal problems.
- Funding: The Trial Court continues to implement elements of its Strategic Plan. Part of this plan calls for the creation and expansion of specialty courts. This year, the Trial Court received $2.7 million for the administration of specialty courts, and it is working to get these up and running. The court hopes to install eight more specialty courts this year and 24 over the next three years, possibly adding a domestic violence specialty court to the four types currently in operation – mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, and veterans courts.
- Technology and Modernization: The Trial Court is building a strong foundation for the future through innovation. To streamline practice for attorneys and pro se litigants alike, it is seeking to expand Alternative Dispute Resolution and Limited Assistance Representation programs. The Court is also integrating technology into its daily practices, including electronic applications for criminal complaints and e-filing. It recently launched a pilot program in Bristol County that gives attorneys online access to dockets and calendars; this program has resulted in a marked reduction in calls to the court office. The next step for the Trial Court will be to roll-out “Court View to Go,” an application that provides attorneys instant case updates on smartphones. The Probate & Family Court is working on similar projects, including a new status-inquiry form and a pilot program on limited-issue settlement conferences.
- Court Practice and Procedure: The Trial Court and Probate & Family Court are examining internal practices. The Trial Court is revising its judicial evaluation process, in order to better assess and train its judges. The Probate & Family Court expressed concerns over a lack of civility exhibited by attorneys and is working with the Massachusetts Bar Association to update their civility guidelines and examine ways to help attorneys reform their behavior, such as sending offending attorneys to a civility education program in lieu of the monetary sanctions that can currently be imposed.
- Housing Court Expansion: We spent most of the Housing Court meeting discussing a possible statewide expansion. Currently, almost 1/3 of the state’s population is unable to access the Housing Court, including the Cape and Islands; almost all of Norfolk County; South and West Middlesex County; and the towns of Revere, Chelsea, and Winthrop. The potential expansion would not require any new courthouses; it would simply mean adding judges to sit at regular weekly sessions. This plan would ease some of the District Court’s caseload, while preserving the District Court’s concurrent jurisdiction.
District Court Sentencing and Release Concerns: Sitting down with the Chief Justice of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Patti Saris, we spoke about sentencing – a topic she is thoroughly familiar with, as chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. She expressed concerns about mandatory minimum sentences. The BBA has long opposed such sentences, because judges should have discretion to consider the nuances of each case and the individual defendant when making sentencing decisions. Although achieving consensus on eliminating these sentences may prove difficult on the federal level, it is possible that the sentences could instead be decreased, and the Chief Justice briefed us on some pending legislation in Congress to do just that.
We spoke as well about re-entry programs for people released from incarceration; these are critical to reducing recidivism, and Chief Justice Saris had suggestions about how our Public Interest Leadership Program (PILP) could help work with the state on successful reentry. For individuals recently released from prison, housing concerns go hand-in-hand with finding a job, since low-wage employment may not be enough to sustain housing. Meanwhile, affordable Section 8 housing is rife with restrictions, often barring convicted felons — which can lead them to stay instead with the very people they should be avoiding as part of a successful reentry plan.
As for court funding, the Chief Justice explained that the federal court budget crisis is resolved, if only for now, and the Court has filled vacancies created during a hiring freeze. However, the Court remains wary that these issues could arise again.
We have more meetings scheduled for the coming weeks and will continue to keep you posted on our discussions as we seek to learn more about how we can work to assure the continued excellence of the Massachusetts judiciary.
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association