Partners in Justice: The Bar and the State of the Courts Address

SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants was a model of efficiency last Thursday, managing to attend our Annual Meeting Luncheon where he saw our Amicus Committee honored for 20 years of outstanding advocacy and heard a keynote address from his friend and former law school classmate Professor David Wilkins shortly before giving his annual State of the Judiciary Address in the Great Hall of the Adams Courthouse.  His speech created some headlines (see e.g. Boston Globe, CommonWealth, WBUR, Mass Lawyers Weekly) with an announcement that the Courts would be launching a study on racial disparities in imprisonment statistics.  However, that was only a small fraction of the substance covered at the event, which also featured speeches by Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence.  Between the three addresses, the speakers discussed how the Courts have developed and changed in recent years and provided a road map for where they are headed.  We are excited for the future prospects in store as these dynamic leaders have made tremendous strides in recent years to improve legal practice and access to justice.

Reflecting on the Last Four Years

Court Administrator Spence, giving his last address at this event before his five-year term ends in April, spoke about the effectiveness of his collaboration with Chief Justice Carey.  The Trial Court has indeed made great strides under their leadership including:

  1. Installing MassCourts in every courthouse to serve as a unified case management system, the first step to a “fully automated digital operation,” which the courts are aiming to complete by the end of 2019.
  2. Adopting evidence-based practices and risk assessment tools in the Probation Department.
  3. Combatting the opioid crisis through drug courts whose graduates are nearly two times less likely to recidivate than defendants in drug-related cases in other courts.
  4. Opening six court service centers to assist pro se litigants.
  5. Improving the capacity and capabilities of the Trial Court’s Facilities Management and Security Departments to assure safety and security in courthouses that continue to serve the public despite a severe shortage of capital investment.
  6. Implementing professional hiring and review procedures to assure highly qualified and professional court staffs.

Spence acknowledged the culture that paved the way for these and other changes, describing the 6,300 court employees as a “community that is committed to working in partnership with each other to improve the quality of justice.”  He described the Court’s commitment to constant improvement, driven by data gathering and analysis, and the increasing distribution of leadership points within what used to be a purely hierarchical structure.

We applaud Administrator Spence for his remarkable devotion to these causes and the incredible strides he has helped the Trial Court take in a short period of time.  We look forward to welcoming his replacement in the spring who we hope will meet the incredible expectations Spence has established for the position.

Looking to the Future

Chief Justice Carey spoke about her hopes and goals for the coming years.  Foremost, the Courts will focus on four “umbrella themes or principles:”

  • Continuous improvement
  • Racial and ethnic disparities
  • Public trust and confidence, and
  • The user experience

She explained that the Trial Court will be looking at its policies and practices to examine how decisions are made in cases and court administration in order to improve the administration of justice and ensure public safety.  This includes a number of initiatives aimed at increasing access to justice such as:

  • Expanding Court Service Centers which help pro se individuals navigate the court system.
  • Promoting the increased use of limited assistance representation, whereby clients can hire attorneys to assist them with a select part of their case.
  • Continuing to develop the language access plan to assure that everyone can read and understand important forms and documents.
  • Examining court fines and fees and the impact they have on certain populations.
  • Supporting the work of Specialty Courts which help defendants address the issues underlying criminal behavior in order to reduce recidivism.

The Chief Justice is also thinking about the court user experience, implementing trainings on domestic violence for judges, clerks, and court staff and the “Signature Counter Experience” program for all clerks’ offices which aims to instill best services practices for interactions with litigants, lawyers, law enforcement and other court house guests.

She closed by applauding the bar for its continued support and collaboration.  We look forward to continuing these efforts and look forward to all of the positive changes she has in store for the Trial Court.

The SJC Chief Justice Weigh-In

SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants combined the two views, looking at the Court system today, where it’s been, and where he hopes it will go.  He began by acknowledging recent major changes as three justices were replaced with new appointees.

Next, he followed-up on a major issue from his 2014 address, the creation of expanded options aimed at streamlining civil litigation across court departments.  In the last year, the Superior, District, Boston Municipal, Probate and Family, and Land Courts all assembled working groups that proposed rules and practice changes that have the potential to save lawyer’s time and client’s money with more efficient practice.  The BBA played an active role in many of these, offering comments (read our recent blog posts on our comments to the Land Court and Superior Court).

Chief Justice Gants noted that the SJC just approved the final Superior Court rule changes that would allow parties to request an early nonbinding judicial assessment of a case, a case management conference, the immediate scheduling of a trial date, earlier pretrial deadlines, limits on discovery, and other opportunities to reduce the cost of litigation and obtain a quicker resolution.  It is now up to you all to take advantage of these changes.  In conversations at our Steering Committee meetings, we commonly heard that though people might not have articulable concerns about certain of these measures, they were skeptical that lawyers would use them (or that their clients would stand for them).  We hope you will give them a second look and try to incorporate them into your practice.

The Chief then turned his attention to access to justice issues.  As mentioned above, he made his biggest media splash by unveiling a plan to have Harvard Law School Dean and member of the BBA Statewide Task Force Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, Martha Minow, lead a team to lead an independent research team to explore reasons for racial and ethnic disparity in the incarceration rate in Massachusetts.  While we are certainly excited at the findings of this report, the Chief Justice also covered a host of other access to justice issue of similar import.  He spoke about how the Courts will continue to examine the fines and fees associated with the justice system to make sure that they are not overburdening those who can least afford it.  The Courts will also attempt to continue expanding Court Service Centers to assist pro se litigants and Housing Court Statewide (with our help) to assure that the entire state can access this valuable legal resource.

As always, we look forward to continuing to work with the courts on these and other initiatives, and in particular, we share the Chief Justices’ enthusiasm to review the forthcoming criminal justice reform proposals borne out of the Council of State Governments’ comprehensive study of Massachusetts criminal justice policies.  Quite simply, we will strive to live up to the title he bestowed to the entire bar, to be the Courts’ “partner in the pursuit of justice.”

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association