On Tuesday, Chief Justice Ralph Gants gave his annual State of the Judiciary Address at the MBA’s Bench Bar Symposium in the Great Hall of the John Adams Courthouse. Attendees such as Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, Judiciary Committee Co-Chairs Representative John Fernandes and Senator William Brownsberger, Attorney General Maura Healey, Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel Lon Povich, and a host of SJC Justice and Chiefs of the Trial Court departments were there.
Chief Justice Gants began with high-minded principles. He explained that he sees every court – not just specialty courts — as a problem solver, which he defines as meeting an obligation to repair the world, an obligation met by saving even one life. No one, he noted, comes before our courts unless they have a problem that cannot otherwise be amicably resolved. All courts seek to repair the world, one problem at a time – a task that can be accomplished only with the support and assistance of the two other branches of government.
The Chief went on discuss two main issues, civil case reforms and justice reinvestment.
Civil Case Reforms
The Courts are intent on changing civil cases, making them more affordable and cost efficient at all levels. “Slow, expensive litigation,” he said, “is the way of the dinosaur.” Three changes are coming this winter:
- A menu of options in Superior Court – parties will soon be able to choose from a number of resolution options. The top option will be the “three course meal” of full discovery and a jury trial. However, there will be a sliding scale of other options, available only upon the agreement of all parties, which will attempt to bring cases to resolution with greater speed and less expense. We expect to have an opportunity to circulate these proposals for comment within the BBA before they take effect.
- More efficient cases – judges will monitor cases more closely to assure that they stay on track. In addition, the SJC Standing Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure will be revising Rule 26 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Using the recently revised federal rule on discovery as a model, the Committee will tweak our state rule to encourage discovery proportional to case costs. We look forward to being part of the review and comment process on Rule 26 as well.
- Increased number of dedicated civil sessions – the District Court and Boston Municipal Court will, at least partly in response to our comments, introduce more sessions dedicated to civil cases, so that these will no longer be the third priority behind criminal and domestic abuse cases. They will also delay implementing the proposed increase in the procedural amount at these courts until these new sessions are running well and demonstrating that they can more efficiently handle civil cases.
The Chief Justice shared a number of ways the courts are working to improve criminal practice, with a focus on decreasing recidivism, helping individuals become productive members of society, and using the state’s criminal-justice budget more wisely to help achieve these twin goals.
- Trial Court departments with criminal jurisdiction have been studying best practices in sentencing and hope to use this information to improve sentencing practices starting this winter. The BBA was represented by Thomas Peisch, Conn Kavanaugh, on the Superior Court Working Group; Daniel Dain, Dain, Torpy, Le Ray, Wiest & Garner PC and Michael Fee, Pierce & Mandell PC on the Land Court Working Group; and Thomas Beauvais and Nigel Long, Liberty Mutual on the BMC Working Group.
- Chief Justice Gants is committed to following the findings and recommendations of the Council of State Governments, which he, along with the Governor, Speaker, and Senate President, invited to examine the Massachusetts criminal justice system. He cited a fact that the Council had already found – in 2012, 46% of those released from state prison in the Commonwealth went back to the street without either parole or probation supervision. This is one of the highest unsupervised release rates in the country and may have the effect of increasing recidivism rates.
- The Chief offered a number of ideas on justice reinvestment such as increasing the availability of good time credits, promoting step-down and re-entry programs, and removing mandatory minimum sentences, or at least their prohibition on the aforementioned programs. He also expressed the belief that the Commonwealth may benefit from decreasing sentence lengths and enhancing post-incarceration supervision. Even though the Commonwealth’s incarceration rate is amongst the lowest in the country, it still does not compare favorably to history (the incarceration rate now is three times higher than it was in 1980 despite the fact that the rates of violent crime are now 22% lower and property crime are now 57% lower), or the world (if Massachusetts were a separate nation, it would have the eighth highest incarceration rate).
- We need to reconsider all of the fees we are imposing on criminal defendants. We are charging them each hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars – fees that amount to more than $30 million per year, when many of these individuals have little or nothing to spare. In addition, the task of collecting these fees has fallen to probation officers, which distracts them from their far more important function of helping probationers succeed in re-entering society.
Chief Justice Gants ended his speech with some notes on access to justice and jury voir dire. On the former issue, he touted the recent opening of four Court Service Centers and the adoption and beginning implementation of a language access plan to help non-English speakers understand court processes, forms, and procedure. The Courts are constantly exploring ways to assure that everyone can meaningfully access their services.
Finally, he talked about how the SJC responded to the bar with the adoption of attorney voir dire. We were pleased to be involved in this process, as current BBA Vice-President Mark Smith, Laredo & Smith, LLP, served on the SJC Committee on this issue. Over the past year, the Court issued a standing order governing lawyer participation in voir dire and designed a pilot project on panel voir dire, which is in use by 15 Superior Court judges. They also recruited 30 Superior Court judges to study attorney-conducted voir dire. The Courts have trained judges and gathered data on the impact of the new measures. In all, the Courts continue to develop, grow, and adapt to this new aspect of practice.
As always, Chief Justice Gants clearly has his finger on the pulse of the judiciary. We are excited to learn of the changes that are coming and to reflect on the strides the Courts have made in the last year. We look forward to working with the judiciary to bring the Chief’s visions to reality, as the Courts innovate and thrive.
– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association