Monthly Archives: November 2016

Stepping Up: Bridgeman Argument and the BBA’s Mission

We hope by now you have seen BBA President Carol Starkey’s letter to our members, in which she makes the case that no matter how challenging we may find the tone of the national dialogue, the BBA remains committed to its mission.  This includes our work to assure the protection of due process rights (including for non-citizens, who may be particularly concerned of late about their rights under the law), freedom from discrimination, and access to justice for all.  One place we see these tenets in action is in our amicus work.  From promoting diversity and inclusion to opposing capital punishment to protecting access to justice and attorney-client privilege, we have been, and we will remain, at the forefront of many of the biggest issues in the Commonwealth and country.

In the latest example, we watched oral argument this week on Bridgeman v. District Attorney for Suffolk County (SJC-12157).  Our amicus brief argues for a global solution in the so-called Annie Dookhan cases—specifically that the Court should vacate, without prejudice, the adverse disposition on all drug related charges where Dookhan was the primary or secondary chemist, but that the Commonwealth should be granted a period of one year, or longer as the Court deems appropriate, to allow the District Attorneys to re-prosecute individual charges.  Any charges not re-prosecuted within that time period should be automatically dismissed with prejudice and further prosecution barred.

This solution places the burden on the Commonwealth, rather than on Dookhan defendants, in addressing the adverse disposition affected by Dookhan’s misconduct.  It is based in principles central to the BBA’s mission – access to justice and the fair administration of justice.  Read more about our brief and the background of the Annie Dookhan scandal in our recent blog post.

Beyond the arguments contained in the BBA brief, its mere existence was cited at oral argument by Matt Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts (ACLUM), as an example of the bar stepping up to meet the many challenges raised by the Dookhan scandal.  Segal’s answer came in response to Justice David Lowy, who had asked whether the bar could “step up” to assist an overburdened Committee for Public Services (CPCS) in handling the remaining unresolved Dookhan cases, which we now know amount to upwards of 20,000.

Segal went on to explain that while the private bar, CPCS, and the courts have all done their part in a tremendous effort toward resolving the mess left by Dookhan, any further “stepping up,” such as through lawyer volunteers to represent Dookhan defendants, would be an inappropriate bail-out for the Commonwealth, which should bear sole responsibility for fixing the problem.  Segal reminded the Court that, this case arises from the Commonwealth’s evidence, the very evidence that in turn has been tainted by a Commonwealth employee.  We couldn’t agree more, and our brief makes that point as well.

The justices and attorneys also probed a number of other issues pertinent to our brief, mission, and Presidential letter:

  • At what point does systemic misconduct rise to a level meriting the sort of global remedy contemplated here? Attorneys for Bridgeman argued that the sheer number of outstanding cases was important in implicating the integrity of the criminal justice system, conceding that if misconduct affected only one or even, say, 40 cases, they would have more confidence in the type of solution proposed by the District Attorneys of notifying defendants and handling each of their cases individually.  The timing also played a role, as more than four years after the scandal came to light, Bridgeman’s attorneys were understandably unwilling to accept as a viable solution the possibility of re-sending notices to Dookhan defendants giving them the option of challenging their convictions because it would violate principles of timely administration of justice.

Attorneys for the District Attorney’s Office argued that the systemic misconduct had been and would continue to be effectively remedied through the diligent work of many individuals and institutions in the state.

  • Can the justice system handle a case-by-case review of affected defendants? CPCS attorney Benjamin Keehn argued that his agency simply did not have the capacity or funding to handle the volume of cases that would be presented if even a fraction of the defendants seek to exercise their rights to try to challenge their convictions.  The District Attorney’s Office countered that these concerns were speculative as it was up to defendants to come forward and based on early returns, few seem to be doing so.  Defendants argued that this was due to shortcomings in the notice the DA’s Offices sent to defendants, because a large majority of defendants would be expected to come forward if they received and understood the notice.

The District Attorneys claimed that notice had been adequately provided and explained their contention that defendants were affirmatively choosing not to challenge their convictions, an assertion that was met with skepticism from Justice Geraldine Hines.  They also argued that a decision in a prior Dookhan case, Commonwealth v. Scott, 467 Mass. 336 (2014), required defendants to demonstrate a reasonable probability that knowledge of Dookhan’s misconduct would have materially influenced his decision to tender a guilty plea.  A global solution would, they argued, undermine this requirement.

  • What role do collateral consequences play? Both Chief Justice Ralph Gants and Justice Barbara Lenk seemed clearly focused on the indirect impacts that potentially-tainted convictions are having, and may yet have, on Dookhan defendants.  Of particular note is whether they may be susceptible to deportation as a result: Gants pointed out that while a case outcome of Continuance Without a Finding (CWOF) may not technically be an adverse disposition in the state, it could have grave implications for a defendant’s federal immigration status.  Lenk later hit on the same point, explaining that Dookhan defendants could unjustly face deportation or other collateral consequences, such as challenges finding housing or jobs, as a result of such a conviction.

The BBA has considered such collateral consequences before in relation to this case and criminal justice reform generally.  We are continuing that conversation and look forward to taking an active role in the upcoming legislative session, when we anticipate criminal justice reform legislation based in part on the recommendations of the Council of State Governments’ review of Massachusetts laws.

We are extremely proud of the work of our Amicus Committee on this case.  They represent one small slice of the BBA’s membership, but, as with so many of our volunteers, their work touches directly on our core values.  As President Starkey described, we are dedicated to our work supporting meaningful access to justice and protecting due process, and we hope you will join us in that commitment.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

BBA President Visits Veterans’ Treatment Court

This Veterans Day, while we give thanks to the many veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much to assure our safety and security, we wanted to take the opportunity to report on our visit to Veterans Treatment Court.  You may recall that last year, BBA President Lisa Arrowood visited a number of Specialty Courts, including Judge Eleanor Sinnott’s Veterans’ Treatment Court (read about her visits to Drug Court, Mental Health, and Homeless Court).  She was so impressed by her experiences that we honored the Specialty Courts at our annual Law Day Dinner this past spring.

In case you aren’t familiar with them, so-called Specialty Courts are court sessions dedicated to resolving certain issues underlying criminal behavior and/or treating certain populations.  There are several types of specialty court sessions:

  • Drug Court – adult and juvenile, and family sessions
  • Homeless Court
  • Mental Health Court
  • Veterans’ Treatment Court

They provide court-supervised probation and mandated treatment focused on treating mental health or substance abuse issues in the defendants’ lives.  Judges balance treatment and accountability for participants – considering the entirety of concerns they face and meeting with them frequently to monitor and work on solving the problems underlying their criminal behavior.  Judges provide support and oversight, working with probation officers who provide intensive supervision and Department of Public Health clinicians who help participants to access effective treatment and therapy.

There are 36 Specialty Court sessions in District and Boston Municipal Courts throughout the state, including 23 drug courts, five veterans’ treatment courts, and eight mental health courts.  They have received funding through the state budget since FY2015 ($3 million).  They were level funded this past year at $3.2 million after receiving a $230,000 increase in FY2016, despite the Trial Court requesting a $2.8 million module to fund expansion efforts.

carol-with-judge-hogan-sullivan-vets-court
Veterans’ Treatment Court Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan and BBA President Carol Starkey

BBA President Carol Starkey jumped at the chance to see the Specialty Courts firsthand.  On November 1, she spent the afternoon at Judge Mary Hogan Sullivan’s Veterans’ Treatment Court in Dedham District Court.  Judge Hogan Sullivan serves as Director of Specialty Courts for the District Court Department and established the Norfolk County Veterans’ Treatment Court in 2012, the first of its kind in Massachusetts.  As described on the court’s website:

Veterans’ treatment courts are designed to handle criminal cases involving defendants who have a history of military service through a coordinated effort among the veterans services delivery system, community-based providers, and the court. The sessions aim to improve public safety while dealing with the underlying issues of posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and military sexual trauma.  Abstinence from drugs and alcohol, mandated treatment, swift accountability, and weekly interaction with the court are requirements of the Veterans Treatment Court.

The program typically requires a 12 to 24 month commitment, which must be voluntarily given by the participant who also must agree to participate in “any and all” court recommendations.  Participants must have at least completed basic training to be eligible.  However, it is open to all veterans regardless of their discharge status, though only those with honorable discharges can access certain Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits the court has access to.  Its stated mission is: “To support veterans and their families through a coordinated effort among the veterans services delivery system, community based providers, and the Court, thereby improving public safety while leaving no veteran behind.”  This packet from the court has extremely detailed information about the process and procedures it follows.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Judge Hogan Sullivan prior to the session.  She candidly explained that Veterans’ Treatment Court is “the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do.”  She thinks of her court as basically a hybrid between mental health and drug courts, though it has some further complicating factors that those courts do not, such as higher occurrences of certain mental health afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.  It also often has to address violence issues, many related to guns, unsurprisingly since they are a staple of military service.  Because of the intensiveness of the program, the court can accommodate only about 30-35 individuals at a single time.  While most of the recommendations for program participation come from probation, some also come from defense attorneys, whom we hope will increasingly recommend the court for their clients as a way to secure services and decrease the potential for recidivism.

Judge Hogan Sullivan compared her process to peeling an onion – her team peels through issues, treating them layer by layer at the appropriate time and in the most effective ways.  Most of the defendants come to court weekly unless they are in residential treatment programs.  Once there, they benefit from the assistance of a defense attorney, probation officer, clinician, veteran outreach worker, and even the prosecutor plays an important role.  They are also assigned a volunteer veteran mentor who is not involved in their cases, but is simply there to provide life support and understanding for the issues unique to their experiences.  This team talks regularly over the course of the week and meets for upwards of 90 minutes prior to open court, during which they discuss in detail the challenges, successes, and setbacks experienced by the program participants.  It was impressive to see how well they understand and care about the individual issues faced by each participant and how devoted they were to coming up with the most appropriate and effective solutions.

While the investment in personnel time and services are high, the results are remarkable.  Graduates of Judge Hogan Sullivan’s Veterans’ Treatment Court have a recidivism rate of about 11.5%, while the average rate in Massachusetts is between 40 and 50 percent.  In its nearly 4 years of operation, only two people have picked up new charges since graduating, and while a handful more have relapsed with drug addiction issues, they have sought the help they needed before turning to the criminal behavior that put them in the justice system in the first place.

Yet, despite the tremendous devotion of the staff and hard work of the veterans involved, the court is held together on a shoestring budget.  They struggle to reach veterans who have lost their drivers’ licenses due to their criminal sanctions and have trouble accessing public transportation to the court or treatment services because there is no funding to assist them.  There isn’t even enough money to be able to provide graduates with certificates or awards at the end of their grueling period in the program.  Judge Hogan Sullivan recognizes the importance of being able to offer participants carrots in addition to the stick of stepped up sanctions and so purchases a supply of business cards saying simply “Congratulations, you did exactly what we asked of you” which she gives out exceedingly sparingly to assure they carry special sentimental weight.

In all, our day at Veterans’ Treatment Court was eye-opening and moving.  We applaud the remarkable work being done by Judge Hogan Sullivan and her team in Dedham.  Stay tuned next week to hear about our visit to Bridges, Judge David Weingarten’s Mental Health Session in Roxbury District Court.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

BBA Meets with the Chief Justices

We do it every fall.  Because of the primary importance to the BBA of the judicial system in Massachusetts, the incoming BBA President meets each year with the chief judges at every level—the heads of the SJC and the Appeals Court, the US District Court, Bankruptcy Court, and Circuit of Appeals, the Chief Justice and Administrator of the Trial Court (together), and the leaders of each of the Trial Court’s seven departments: Superior Court, District Court, Boston Municipal Court, Housing Court, Juvenile Court, Land Court, and Probate & Family Court.

As you can imagine, these thirteen meetings take up a great deal of the President’s time.  But the effort is always worthwhile, for the opportunity it provides to discuss our mutual plans priorities for the coming year and where they overlap, to reaffirm our commitment to adequate funding and other support necessary to enable the Massachusetts courts to maintain their preeminent position in the nation, and to promote a free-flowing back-and-forth throughout the year.

BBA President Carol Starkey recently wrapped up her chief-judge meetings, and, as usual, some common themes emerged:

Budget funding

Funding for the Trial Court is always one of the BBA’s top priorities and a focus of our advocacy at the State House.  The Court has recovered well from the budget setbacks that were necessitated by the Great Recession, becoming leaner and more efficient.  But recent years have found budget-writers in the Governor’s Office and the Legislature tightening their belts once again, and the courts have not been entirely spared.

For the current fiscal year (FY17), the Trial Court’s final budget of $639 million represents $15.4 million less than what they would have required to maintain level services.  As a result, they are making do by putting off some hiring, launching an early-retirement program, and accelerating efforts to do more with less, such as by shifting staff among courthouses, sessions, and responsibilities.

This budget crunch is taking its toll throughout the system, and we heard from several chief judges about its impact in their courts.  Chief Justice Paul Dawley, who oversees 62 courthouses in the District Court system—many of them aging badly—knows as well as anyone how urgent the need is for adequate court funding.

Online access to court records

This past year, the Trial Court issued a new rule on public access to court records on-line.  The process was challenging, as these debates are always fraught with tension over the competing interests of transparency and privacy.  The rules seek to strike the proper balance by creating limited exceptions to the general rule providing for accessibility.  Criminal cases, for instance, come with their own set of concerns, and the Court took steps to ensure that access to information on those cases did not undermine either the letter or the spirit of recent changes to laws on criminal offender record information (CORI)—changes designed to promote successful re-entry of ex-offenders.

Beyond that, the Court recognized that on-line access rules are a work in progress and that a one-size-fits-all approach will not succeed: The new rules provide for both a working group to oversee and study their implementation and for standing orders within each department that address their unique concerns.  (In fact, just this week, the Probate & Family Court followed up with a standing order rendering both docket entries and parties’ addresses in a broad range of cases unavailable through the on-line portal.)  Both the opportunity and the challenge presented to the judiciary, and court users, as records move on-line are clearly on the minds of many of the chiefs we met with.

Vacancies on the bench

We’ve written here before about how critical it is that qualified candidates apply for judgeships—and that lawyers who work with such people encourage them to do so.  Right now, several court departments are facing significant shortfalls on their benches, and getting more applicants is one piece of the puzzle in filling those seats.

With 7 vacancies (out of 49) expected by the end of this year, Chief Justice Angela Ordoñez of the Probate & Family often has to place herself on special committees, rather than ask one of her overburdened judges to take on such work as well.  At the Superior Court, Chief Justice Judith Fabricant has 13 openings and sees 7 more coming by the end of 2017.

In all, the Trial Court has more than 50 judicial vacancies at the moment.  And while nearly half of that gap is being filled, for now, by recall judges, the need is still great.  The Governor’s office, the Judicial Nominating Commission, and the Governor’s Council are all hard at work, playing their respective roles in nominating, vetting, and confirming qualified candidates, but we will need to keep an eye on the situation.

One aspect of the process that all players are focused on is diversity among judges—racial and ethnic diversity, as well as geographic diversity, gender balance, and a mix of backgrounds in terms of practice area and setting.  Several chiefs told us they, too, are keeping a close eye on the diversity of their judges.  Chief Ordoñez is taking on the problem by addressing the early end of the pipeline—pairing small groups of lawyers as mentors with minority students at not only local law schools but also colleges and even high schools, to help them see the law as a potential career path.

Judicial evaluations

Each year we hear the same appeal from multiple chief judges: Please urge practitioners in their courts to fill out and submit judicial-evaluation forms!  The information they produce can be invaluable in helping judges improve and making the chiefs aware of topics for continued trainings.

We know that some lawyers have concerns about the forms—that they aren’t used by the courts, that responses that could be read as criticism will make their way back to the judge in question with enough particulars to reveal the respondent’s identity.  But the chiefs take pains to stress to us, time and again, that they do indeed rely on the forms, and that they make every effort to maintain confidentiality by scrubbing details before sharing them.

We have pledged to the chief judges that we will continue to help them with the evaluation process.  At the same time, we are always interested in any questions or hesitations you may have about it, so please let us know!  The chiefs are eager as well to hear informally, through the BBA, of any problems that have come to our attention, whether with individuals or more generally.

LAR

Another topic that came up time and again was limited-assistance representation (LAR), through which an attorney can take on a client for discrete parts of a case, without being tied to the client for the entirety of the case.  The BBA is a strong supporter of LAR as a way to bridge the justice gap that leaves too many litigants without the means to pay for counsel yet unable to qualify for assistance from legal-services providers.  It can also help new lawyers establish and grow a practice.

We are always seeking ways to help educate attorneys on LAR; we’ve conducted many trainings on it, and we are planning more.  (We also recently submitted comments on new rules bringing LAR to Superior Court for the first time.)  Our meetings with chief judges are a chance to assess how well LAR is working in their courts, to learn which types of cases are best suited for LAR in each court, and to ask how the BBA can further promote the program.  We have also relayed fears shared by some would-be LAR practitioners that they will be unable to extricate themselves from a case after they’ve finished the limited work they signed on to handle.

According to Chief Justice Roberto Ronquillo, the Boston Municipal Court sees many cases (e.g., collections matters) that can be settled in one day with the assistance of counsel—yet often at least party is unrepresented.  He also offered insight into LAR from a trial judge’s perspective, giving us useful advice on how to increase their awareness of LAR as an option to suggest to parties.

At the Land Court, where Chief Justice Judith Cutler presides, judges frequently recommend LAR.  Yet they’ve encountered some problems in how it’s worked in practice—problems they were keen to get our help with.  Specifically, they’d like to see LAR attorneys help with a case earlier in the process.  A simple consultation with an LAR attorney at the outset can help prevent further problems down the line.  Too often, pro-se litigants fail to even respond to motions, only to seek counsel late in the game.  There is simply too much at stake in cases before the Land Court for that be a beneficial approach, and Chief Cutler is eager to see such problems averted.

Beyond these broad themes, the judges raised issues that are affecting their courts individually.  For example, Chief Justice Amy Nechtem of the Juvenile Court spoke with pride about the work they’re doing to address racial disparities.  Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan thanked us for our advocacy on behalf of expansion of his Housing Court to statewide jurisdiction—a battle that will continue in the new year.

From Chief Justice Scott Kafker, we learned of his initiatives to help Appeals Court justices work through their caseloads more efficiently and to get cases ready more quickly.

When we sat down with SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants, it was clear that the state’s on-going effort to study our criminal-justice system, in conjunction with the Council of State Governments (CSG), was occupying much of his thinking.  Chief Gants, along with Governor Charlie Baker and the Legislature’s two leaders, was a signatory to the letter inviting CSG to assist in this broad review of policies and practices, and, like the others, he is a member of the steering committee that is guiding their work.

CSG anticipates filing a report with recommendations by the end of this year, in time for legislation to be filed at the start of the 2017-18 legislative session, and Chief Gants foresees a role—as do we—for the BBA to play in analyzing and commenting on the report and resulting bills.

Our meetings with the chief judges in the federal system tend to highlight different issues.  The Bankruptcy judges (whom we met with as a group, led by Chief Judge Melvin Hoffman) were proud of their new local bankruptcy rules and asked us to spread the word.  Chief Judge Patti Saris told us the US District Court is looking into developing its own local rules of civil procedure.  At both of these meetings, we heard laments about the difficulties new lawyers face in first passing the bar and then establishing themselves in their careers.  And Chief Judge Jeffrey Howard of the First Circuit Court of Appeals shared with us that while his court has made advances in technology, it’s difficult to keep up.  As a result, some attorneys bring their own equipment, which can put pro-se litigants at a disadvantage.

Finally, we had a bittersweet meeting with Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, because the latter will be retiring this April.  He will clearly be racing through the finishing line, however, and he and Chief Carey updated us on a variety of projects they have before them, including training for staff on implicit bias, a restructuring of personnel to upgrade security, and the Court’s 20-year plan for capital spending to set priorities for new construction.

These annual meetings provide a window into the thinking of the leadership at the judiciary, and we will continue to share with you what we learn.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association