ICYMI: Chief Justice Ralph Gants Delivers the State of the Judiciary

Last Week, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Ralph Gants, delivered his annual “State of the Judiciary” speech in the Great Hall of the John Adams Courthouse. This event, which also included addresses by Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey, and Court Administrator Jonathan Williams, always offers valuable insight into the current and future priorities of the Massachusetts Court System.

Chief Justice Gants first took a moment to extend a warm thanks to all those that help ensure a functioning court system, including the judges, clerks, administrative staff, security personnel and court officers, as well as the private bar, the legislature, and the executive branch.

Kicking things off with a recent success story, the Chief Justice also specifically thanked the House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, Senator Karen Spilka, and Representative Chris Walsh for their leadership in expanding the Housing Court statewide. We’ve also been calling for this expansion for the last three years and are thrilled that all the benefits of the housing court will be extended to all residents of the Commonwealth. And the benefits of Housing Court are many, including judges that are exceedingly well-versed in all aspects of often-complex housing law issues, as well as Housing Specialists, who mediate cases, facilitate settlements, and even provide on-site reviews to resolve issues with housings conditions.

The Chief Justice also discussed conflict resolution, noting the menus of litigation options currently in place at the Land Court, Probate and Family Court, and Superior Court, which allows parties to utilize alternative dispute resolution to resolve conflicts in a tailored way that takes into account the particulars of each case. As he did in the BBA Council meeting in the spring, he urged attorneys and litigants to begin making more use of these options. This focus on the efficiency of the delivery of justice led to a discussion of the need for the courts to update their information technology, and the Chief highlighted the current work being done to digitize the court experience, by increasing the use of e-filing, digital reminders, the immediate electronic transmission of judicial orders and opinions, and video conferencing.

There were two key issues in the address that garnered heightened attention: Criminal Justice Reform and the Care and Protection Crisis.

On the Criminal Justice Reform front, the Chief began by commending the work done by the Juvenile Court, the Superior Court, the District Court, and the BMC in adopting best practices in sentencing that help to ensure each defendant receives an individualized sentence that takes into account the full context of the crime, the victim, and the defendant. He also highlighted the recent American Law Institute’s adoption of a new Model Penal Code of Sentencing, which calls to end mandatory minimum sentences.

Chief Justice Gants then turned his attention to the broader debating currently taking place at the legislature. We were very pleased to hear the Chief praise our own Criminal Justice Reform Working Group report, “No Time to Wait,” noting that the report, “clearly written, thoroughly researched, and carefully considered, comprehensively describes the urgent need for reform.” For an update on where our advocacy on this report stands, be sure to check out this post.

The Chief Justice then honed in on the key take away from the Council of State Governments report released earlier this year: that effective criminal justice reform, which includes the provision of drug and mental health treatments, the earning of good time and parole, and removing barriers to reentry, does not increase the crime rate, but instead reduces it. He noted that “if we take these steps, then we can finally make a dent in [the] persistent recidivism rate and reduce the overall crime rate.”

The second headline-making item highlighted in the address is the lack of available attorneys to represent parents and children in care and protection cases. These cases arise when the Department of Children and Families (DCF) removes a child from parental custody. Based on Massachusetts statutes, each parent and child is entitled to individual representation by an attorney at an evidentiary hearing that must happen with 72 hours of the removal of custody to determine whether DCF’s temporary custody will continue until resolution of the matter. In the Western part of the state, the crisis is especially severe, and since March of 2017, nearly half of the 72-hour hearings have been continued based on an inability to find attorney to represent all necessary parties. Given the severity of the problem, both in Hamden County and the rest of the state, the Chief stated “it is time to recognize this for what it is – a constitutional emergency.” He urged a concerted effort from CPCS, the bar, law schools, and the legislature to find new ways to reach, train, and encourage more attorneys to take on these cases.

The Chief wrapped up his speech by noting one theme that applied to all of the topics covered in his afternoon speech: “our ongoing effort as a court system to rethink how to make the legal process fairer, more efficient, and more effective in solving the problems of the people who come before us.” We commend this ongoing effort and look forward to continuing our support for the Judicial Branch and finding new ways to contribute to a fair, efficient, and effective court system here in the Commonwealth.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association