Posts Categorized: Trial Court

BBA Budget Update: House Ways and Means Proposes FY18 Budget

As we’ve reported, BBA advocacy on the Budget for FY18 is now in full gear. This means we’ve been keeping a close watch on all budget-related happenings, and on Monday the House Ways and Means Committee released their $40.3 billion proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18), which begins on July 1.

With this release, members of the House are gearing up for a busy few weeks, as they will file and debate proposed amendments before the final House budget is passed. Then, it’ll be the Senate’s turn to propose, debate, and pass their own version of the budget. After that, a conference committee will attempt to reconcile the differences in the two budgets, and once approved by both chambers of the Legislature, the Governor has ten days to review and sign it. The Governor cannot add additional items but can veto or reduce particular line-items or veto the entire budget. The House and Senate can then, with a two-thirds roll-call vote in each chamber, vote to override any vetoes.

The House Ways and Means Committee proposed budget contains some significant departures from the Governor’s budget, H.1, in the areas that we’ve highlighted as our state funding priorities, including:

MLAC

As the largest provider of funds for state legal-services agencies, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) is a crucial piece of providing access to justice for Massachusetts residents. The Governor’s proposed budget called for only a 1% increase in the MLAC line-item, leaving the proposed appropriation at $18.18 million. This $180,000 increase is far below the BBA-supported ask of a $5 million increase that would provide for a $23 million MLAC line-item.

The House Ways and Means Budget recommends an increase of $1.5 million for the MLAC line-item to a total of $19.5 million. This moves MLAC a significant step closer to the $5 million request and will allow civil legal aid programs to take on more than 2,000 new cases.

In the words of Executive Director Lonnie Powers, MLAC is “incredibly pleased that the House Ways and Means Committee recognizes the role that civil legal aid funding plays in promoting equal access to justice for low-income residents of the Commonwealth.” Notably, House Ways and Means Committee Chairperson Brian Dempsey specifically mentioned the inclusion of MLAC in his letter explaining the budget, highlighting it as part of the House’s own commitment “to protecting and providing for [the] Commonwealth’s most vulnerable residents.”

We join MLAC in expressing gratitude that the House Ways and Means Committee continues to recognize and value the importance of civil legal aid. As BBA President-Elect Mark Smith, of Laredo & Smith, was able to relay at a legislative briefing last week, and as we have expressed consistently over the past years, civil legal aid is not only necessary to ensure access to justice, it is also a smart investment that offers many economic benefits to the state.

Overall, this is undoubtedly good news for civil legal aid in Massachusetts, but given the shaky position of the federal budget and President Trump’s proposal to zero-out funding for the main federal funder of civil legal aid, the need for more state funding for MLAC is still critical. An increase of $1.5 million is a good start, but even with that, the state will still be forced to turn away the majority of eligible people who need legal assistance.

Fortunately, Representative Ruth Balser filed an amendment (#822) on Thursday to increase the House Ways and Means Committee recommendation by an additional $1.5 million, bringing the total proposed appropriation to $21 million. As the house budget debates begin, it is crucial that your representatives know how important civil legal aid is to you.

You can contact them now, using this easy tool from our partners at the Equal Justice Coalition (EJC), to ask them to co-sponsor the amendment. If you want to reach out in person or on the phone, you can find your representative here, get guidance from these talking points and resources, and listen to the BBA Issue Spot Podcast with chair of the EJC Louis Tompros for a primer on how to talk to your legislator (especially about civil legal aid).

Trial Court

Adequate funding of the Trial Court, another BBA priority, is necessary to ensure the continued efficient and accessible functioning of our judicial system. The Governor’s proposed budget recommended a 1% increase for the Trial Court, for a total appropriation of $646.8 million. Mostly because of an $11.7 million judicial pay increase that passed after the Governor released his budget in January, this now falls below the Trial Court’s revised funding request of $661,368,224 for FY18.

In more good news, the House Ways and Means Committee recommendation specifically provided for these pay raises in full, as the line-item related the payroll costs of the justices in the seven departments of the Trial Court (0330-0101) moved from $58.5 million in the Governor’s recommendation to $70.3 million. By including this increase, the Committee will allow the Trial Court to continue the gains it has made in recent years on working smarter and getting more done with less money and less staff. Ultimately, this will help to ensure that the Trial Court remains effective and accessible for all Massachusetts residents.

Despite this good news, there was one significant Trial Court line-item missing entirely from the House Ways and Means recommendation, which brings us to…

Statewide Expansion of the Housing Court

For the past few years, we’ve been discussing the reasons why statewide expansion of the Housing Court makes sense. Currently, about one-third of the state lacks access to Housing Court and the benefits that come along with it, including the judges’ expertise in all housing matters, the availability of Housing Specialists who can facilitate settlements and help parties avoid expensive litigation costs, and programs like Lawyer for the Day, which assist pro-se litigants and as a result preserve judicial resources and ensure the efficient operation of the Court.

In an important step, the Governor’s budget recommended $1 million for the expansion. After the release of the Governor’s budget Representative Chris Walsh sent a letter, signed onto by 42 other Representatives, to the House Ways and Means Committee, urging them to include the full $1.2 million needed for successful initial expansion in their FY18 budget proposal. Unfortunately, the Committee removed the Housing Court Expansion line-item entirely.

However, the Housing Court Expansion line-item can still be included in the Senate budget, so now is the time to let your Senator know about the importance of allocating $1.2 million for this expansion. Additionally, two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, have  been filed to advance housing court expansion, so you can urge your legislators to support this legislation to ensure that nearly one-third of the state is no longer excluded from the benefits of the Housing Court. Make sure to check out these resources and tips in our how-to-talk-to-your-legislator podcast!

As outlined above, there is still a ways to go in the budget process, which means there is plenty of time left for the BBA, and all of you as individuals, to advocate for adequate funding to ensure that Massachusetts is able to provide access to justice for all its residents. Keep watching this space for more news on budget developments and how you can get involved!

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

 

BBA Budget Advocacy for FY2018

With the House Ways and Means Committee set to release their budget recommendation around April 12, the BBA is ramping up our own budget advocacy, calling for adequate funding for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) and the Trial Court, including statewide expansion of the Housing Court, and help for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) in meeting their constitutional mandate to provide legal representation to the indigent. This week, we’re sending a letter to the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Brian Dempsey, explaining why adequate funding in these areas is necessary.

Below, we offer an update on our budget priorities and share how you can get involved:

MLAC

Funding for MLAC and civil legal aid is as crucial as ever because legal aid directly touches so many of the biggest social issues impacting residents of the Commonwealth today, including homelessness and emergency shelter, immigration, domestic violence, and the opioid crisis. MLAC projections reveal that in 2017, MLAC-funded legal aid programs will receive over 89,500 requests for legal services. And, as indicated by the findings of the Investing in Justice Report by the BBA Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid, providers will be forced to turn away nearly two-thirds of those requests from qualified applicants as a result of a lack of resources.

These projections, of course, do not take into account the recent threats to federal civil legal aid funding. President Trump’s first proposed federal budget calls for the complete elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its $385 million in federal appropriations for civil legal aid. At the state level, this would mean MLAC would lose more than $5 million in federal funding and nearly 26,000 low-income Massachusetts residents would be left without legal assistance. Plus another $4 – $5 million in federal funding for civil legal aid would be lost by other programs, making the total civil legal aid funding lost in Massachusetts close to $10 million. The projected demand of 89,500 cases would likely rise significantly as well if that federal budget were enacted, as other social support services are likewise at risk of losing federal funding.

(You can learn about the federal budget and budget advocacy at the federal level by listening to this Federal Budget Process 101 podcast, and our earlier podcast on the state budget process focused on civil legal aid in particular.)

As we’ve reported many times before, the Investing in Justice Report also found that civil legal aid is a smart investment as it saves the state money on “back-end” costs such as emergency shelter, foster care, and health care. In fact, according to MLAC’s most recent report on the economic benefits of legal aid, legal assistance for low-income residents resulted in over $49 million of total income and savings for the Commonwealth in FY16 alone. Specifically, the report shows that legal aid led to $12.1 million in cost savings on social services for the state, $15.9 million in federal revenue entering the Commonwealth, and $21.2 million in benefits for residents.

The BBA supports MLAC’s ask for a $5 million increase in funding, for a total of $23 million in the FY18 budget, which would allow MLAC-funded civil legal aid programs to open at least 4,000 new cases, assisting an estimated 10,300 additional low-income clients and their family members. Be sure to check out MLAC’s helpful issue-specific breakdowns on the importance of legal aid in Housing, Employment, Immigration and Domestic Violence cases. We hope that you will join the BBA in supporting civil legal aid by reaching out to your State Senator and Representative to ask them to support MLAC’s budget request. If you don’t know your legislator, look them up here, and if you’re not sure what to say, refer to these handy talking points and keep an ear out for a future Issue Spot Podcast on How to Talk to Your Legislators.

Trial Court

The Trial Court, which is made up of seven court departments, handles the vast majority of cases in the Commonwealth, and as a result, acts as the primary point of contact for nearly all Massachusetts residents who are seeking resolution of a legal issue. In order to ensure the efficient operation of the judicial system and fair, impartial, and equal access to justice, it is essential that the Trial Court receive adequate funding.

Over the last few years, the Trial Court has made great strides in finding ways to work smarter and leverage technological advancements to get more done with less money and less staff. Their current request for maintenance funding of 6,359 positions represents a decrease of 161 positions below the FY2016 staffing and a 19% reduction since FY02. Despite these efforts, the Trial Court still has a major need for increased funding to sustain and continue the progress made in recent years.

As we’ve outlined, the Governor provided for about a 1% across-the-board increase in Trial Court appropriations, for a total of $646.8 million, which was slightly less than the court’s original maintenance budget request of $649.5 million but quite short of the revised request that accounts for the $11.7 million in pay raises that must be implemented as a result of the pay package that passed earlier this year. The Trial Court’s revised funding request for FY18, $661,368,224, would support a number of modules necessary to maintain a well-functioning court system, from IT updates to programs related to Alternative Dispute Resolution and Transition Age Probation. In addition, the Trial Court’s facilities are in dire need of security system upgrades, which are necessary to preserve the safety of court employees, users, and the general public, ensuring the Trial Court remains effective and accessible for all residents of the Commonwealth.

Statewide Housing Court

An especially striking example of the Trial Court’s work to improve both access and efficiency is the plan to expand Housing Court jurisdiction to the whole state. As we’ve mentioned in the past, Housing Court offers a number of key benefits, including operating as the only forum in the Commonwealth capable of handling all housing matters, from code enforcement to eviction proceedings, on a daily basis. Housing Court judges are exceedingly well-versed in all aspects of housing law, an area that can be quite complex, and have the specialized expertise to analyze federal, state and local laws on housing. Additionally, parties in the Housing Court have access to Housing Specialists, who mediate cases, facilitate settlements, and even provide on-site reviews to resolve issues with housing conditions. This, and programs like Lawyer for the Day, also make Housing Court especially adept at handling pro se litigants.

Currently, about one-third of the State does not have access to Housing Court, meaning litigants in those areas must take their matters to District Court, where they wait in line behind a full range of civil and criminal cases and eventually appear before judges who hear only an occasional housing matter. Some municipalities outside of Housing Court jurisdiction find that it’s not always worth sending code-enforcement officers into District Court because of the necessary time commitment. Parties also lack access to the Housing Specialists and therefore may miss an opportunity to settle and avoid the need, and expense, of trying the matter in court. In FY16, there were 27,487 eviction cases filed in the Housing Courts and a statewide expansion would allow the Court to increase its eviction caseload by approximately 6,000 cases.

Plus, the Housing Court is a model of efficiency, featuring the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department. The Housing Court also offers programs like the Tenancy Preservation Program (TPP) – a unique intervention that enables trained counselors to assist with services in cases involving persons with disabilities, ultimately helping in preventing homelessness. Currently, conservative estimates show that the TPP saves the state from spending between $4 million and $8 million in shelter costs annually, and if Housing Court is expanded statewide, the TPP could save the state an additional $1.8 million.

While the $1 million earmarked to cover the expansion in the Governor’s budget is a good start, an allocation of $1.2 million would ensure the successful statewide expansion. Earlier this month, Representative Chris Walsh sent a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee, signed onto by 42 other Representatives, urging them to include the full $1.2 million in the FY18 Budget. In addition, Senator Spilka and Representative Walsh have refiled bills, both referred to the Judiciary Committee, for the Housing Court expansion.

If you want to join the BBA in advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court, refer to these resources and reach out to your legislators! Listen up for a future podcast on the Housing Court where we’ll take you behind the scenes with a visit to Lawyer for the Day and a conversation with a Housing Court Judge.

CPCS

As the agency responsible for representing those unable to afford an attorney in all matters where the right to appointed counsel attaches, CPCS plays a huge role in our justice system. The way that their state funding is appropriated adds to that burden, requiring them to seek additional money each year to cover shortfalls.

This year, CPCS is seeking $244 million to provide maintenance-level services in the coming year, plus $14.3 million to cover additional initiatives, with most of that earmarked for much-needed increases in the hourly rates paid to private assigned counsel, which have not been changed in 12 years, and increases to the base salaries of CPCS staff attorneys, as recommended in the recent report of a gubernatorial commission (on which the BBA sat).

We encourage you to contact your elected representatives on Beacon Hill regarding all of these BBA budget priorities. As noted above, we’ll be posting a podcast shortly on How to Talk to Your Legislators.

We’ll be checking in with more budget updates as the process unfolds, and if you need a refresher on the budget process generally, head over to our Geeking Out on the State Budget Podcast.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

 

Chief Justice Gants Addresses the BBA Council

The Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) was once again kind enough to address the BBA Council at its most recent meeting. He spoke on a number of important issues facing Massachusetts, including criminal justice reform, the state budget, and civil legal aid.

From his appointment to the Superior Court two decades ago, to his appointment as Chief Justice of the SJC in 2014, and beyond, Chief Justice Gants has consistently shown his analytical rigor and intellectual scrupulousness. In addition to his unmatched legal analysis, he is well-known for his community outreach, regularly taking the time to address the public about the Massachusetts court system and the real impact it has on individual and community experiences.  Chief Justice Gants also has a long history of offering numerous platforms for discussion and critical insights on many of the causes near and dear to the BBA, including access to justice and pro bono legal services. He was a member of the SJC’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services and also served as co-chair of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission from 2010 to 2015. The BBA recognized Chief Justice Gants with the Citation of Judicial Excellence in 2012.

At the Council meeting, Chief Justice Gants spoke on:

Immigration Issues

Chief Justice Gants began by thanking BBA President Carol Starkey, and the BBA as a whole for the recent leadership shown in response to current events impacting immigrant communities. He noted that complex issues like these will likely not be going away anytime soon, and he is hoping to see members of bar associations stepping up and remembering why they chose to enter the legal profession in the first place. The Chief Justice also pointed to an instance in Texas where a woman was detained by ICE while filing for a protective order from her allegedly abusive boyfriend, noting that the courts in Massachusetts will be keeping a watchful eye on these issues. He remarked that even though these events may be happening far away, the impacts can still be experienced by Massachusetts residents and Massachusetts courts, potentially creating a chilling effect that discourages victims from pursuing redress. Once again, he noted how important it will be for lawyers, and specifically bar associations, to step up and reach out. Underserved populations need this outreach to ensure they understand the availability of legal assistance and know when and how to access their rights and seek assistance and justice through the courts. For its part, the court system has been sending the message that all are welcome and no one’s status will be questioned.

Criminal Justice Reform

Chief Justice Gants next discussed the Council of State Governments (CSG) report on criminal justice reform, which had been released earlier that morning.  Check out last week’s Issue Spot for our full run-down of the released report and a BBA event with an all-star panel discussing the final recommendations.  Similar to his last speech to the Council where he compared the budget process to a baseball game, Chief Justice Gants employed a sports analogy to describe the report, comparing the CSG process and report to a football game. He stated that the final report and proposed legislation were the equivalent of a first down: it advanced the ball down the field and did not require the team to resort to a punt. However, the CSG process did not produce a touchdown, so there is still more work to be done on criminal justice reform.  Overall, the Chief Justice saw the CSG procedure as a great learning opportunity, especially important as the previous nationwide reluctance to pursue substantial criminal justice system reform is beginning to shift and more and more other states are comprehensively addressing these issues. Finally, he provided that the CSG report and proposed legislation is particularly strong in certain areas, including its findings on wrap-around services and the specific reentry needs of 16 to 24 year olds that work to reduce barriers to housing, employment, and education. On that last point, the court system is developing a pilot project dedicated to those young people.

The Budget

Next, the Chief Justice addressed budget issues, beginning with a discussion of Governor Charlie Baker’s allocation of $1 million for a state-wide Housing Court. He noted that currently only two-thirds of the state has access to the Housing Court and that it “just makes sense” to extend access to the entire state. As the BBA has written in the past, proponents of a Housing Court expansion point to the expertise of the judges who are equipped to handle the range of housing issues, the specialists at Housing Court who offer mediation and save potential litigants time and money, and the special services in place that make the Court adept at serving pro se litigants and handling municipal code enforcement.  Additionally, the Housing Court operates at the lowest cost per case of any Trial Court department, making it an efficient option. Make sure to keep an eye out for future BBA updates on this issue.

Chief Justice Gants also addressed the Trial Court’s budget prospects. As we outlined a few weeks ago, the budget process is only just beginning, but the Governor called for a 1% increase in appropriations for the Judiciary for Fiscal Year 2018.  Chief Justice Gants specifically spoke about the likelihood of an increase in Probation staff in light of the CSG report that will call upon more comprehensive supervision to ease reentry and reduce recidivism. He also pointed out that the increase provided in the Governor’s budget would not be enough to allow for an expansion in specialty courts, including Veteran’s Treatment Courts, Drug Courts, Homelessness Courts, and Mental Health Courts. Overall, the Chief Justice noted that BBA support would be crucial on these budget issues, and the BBA has a long history of offering that support.

Civil Justice Reform

The Chief Justice concluded his remarks by reminding members of the Council of the recently-created “menu of options” now available that give lawyers more practice options and allow them to craft their own case in a way that makes the most sense for the particulars of the specific situation.  Chief Justice Gants stressed, as he did previously, that these increased options will only work if lawyers choose to employ them. In many other jurisdictions, the use of these options is imposed by the court, but the Chief Justice is hoping that here, more lawyers will step up and pursue the options independently now that they have the choice.

As expected, the Chief Justice offered important insights into a range of issues, displaying both his impressive expertise and his constant passion for reform that will improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accessibility of the Massachusetts court system.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

 

 

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

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

BBA Amicus Brief History Part I: Protecting Access to Lawyers and Attorney-Client Privilege

We are proud to be honoring our Amicus Committee at the 2016 Annual Meeting Luncheon, one of the largest annual bench/bar events in Massachusetts.  The keynote speaker will be Professor David B. Wilkins, the Vice Dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School. A prolific author and leading scholar on the profession, Professor Wilkins is well known for his research on the impact of globalization on the legal market, diversity in the profession and the various career trajectories of attorneys.

However, in this blog we would like to focus on our honorees, the BBA’s amicus volunteers, from Chairs and members of the Committee to the drafters of our many briefs.  For more than twenty years, the BBA has had a voice in some of the most important legal issues of our time through the filing of amicus briefs.  We look forward to honoring over 100 individuals who have given their time and talents to this work – the collective force of which has not only defended and protected individuals’ rights, but forever changed the legal landscape in which we live and practice.  This week and next, we will look at some of the most important themes covered in some of our most well-known briefs.

Access to a Lawyer

Tax on Legal Services

The BBA has long defended access to lawyers for those in need, both the constitutional right to a lawyer for indigent criminal defendants and much-needed representation for low-income civil litigants.  The first of these cases was in 1990, related to a then proposed tax on legal services.  On July 7, 1990, the Massachusetts General Court passed House Bill 5858, “An Act Establishing the Economic Stability and Recovery Compact.”  The legislation sought to impose a tax on certain services rendered by lawyers and consumed within the state.  Two days later, Governor Michael Dukakis, noting “grave doubts” about the constitutionality of the bill, asked the SJC to consider the issue.  The SJC requested amicus briefs specifically from the BBA and MBA, and we were happy to oblige.

A mere four days after this request, the BBA and MBA submitted a joint brief, authored by  lawyers from Choate, Hall & Stewart (today, Choate) and Hale and Dorr (prior to becoming WilmerHale) successfully arguing against the tax because it violated both the Massachusetts and United States Constitutions.  Specifically, it explained that the bill violated Article XXX of the Massachusetts Constitution regarding separation of powers by overextending legislative authority to the regulation of the practice of law and attorney conduct, which are regulated exclusively by the judiciary.  It also unconstitutionally infringed upon the SJC’s exclusive powers under the same Article by imposing administrative bookkeeping responsibilities upon the legal profession that conflicted with the ethical obligations embodied in the rules of professional conduct contained in SJC Rule 3:07.  Going a step further, in a footnote, the brief explained that enforcement of the bill would require lawyers to violate attorney-client privilege by disclosing confidential information regarding the nature of legal services rendered in particular transactions.  This level of reporting would “chill clients’ willingness to consult their attorneys and, ultimately, undermine public confidence in our legal system.”

The brief also argued that the bill violated the Fifth (limiting police procedures, outlawing unjust imprisonment and double jeopardy, and protecting a person from being compelled to be a witness against himself in a criminal case), Sixth (right to a speedy and public trial, impartial jury, and to know your accusers and the nature of charges and evidence against you), and Fourteenth (equal protection and due process of law) Amendments of the US Constitution.

As applied to legal services, the bill was argued to be unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution for violating the Excise Clause and Article 11 of the Declaration of Rights, which states:

Every subject of the commonwealth ought to find a certain remedy, by having recourse to the laws, for all injuries or wrongs which he may receive in his person, property, or character. He ought to obtain right and justice freely, and without being obliged to purchase it; completely, and without any denial; promptly, and without delay; conformably to the laws.

The language in this Article has been applied to prohibit the “imposition of unreasonable charges” for access to the courts, which the brief argues such a tax would be.  The charges proposed by the statute at issue are unreasonable because they would not be uniformly applied and the difference in taxpayers’ liability was not rationally related to differences in the nature or degree of services provided by the Commonwealth to different taxpayers in connection with the administration of justice.  Also, unlike other court fees and costs, the revenue from the tax would be unrestricted in its use, whereas court fees typically must have a reasonable relationship to the administration of justice.

The legal services tax provision took effect on December 1, 1990, and two days later, Governor Dukakis signed legislation repealing the tax.  Yet this was not the end of the conversation.  In 2011, a Tax Expenditure Commission comprehensively reviewed the state’s then tax structure and considered new taxes, including this sort of tax on services.  The BBA took the opportunity to remind the public of this brief, and ultimately the Commission’s report did not recommend  this sort of tax.

Lavallee v. The Justices of the Hampden Superior Court and Carabello v. The Justices of the Holyoke District Court

Fourteen years later, we were having a similar discussion, this time specifically for attorneys representing indigent criminal defendants.  In Lavallee v. The Justices of the Hampden Superior Court and Carabello v. The Justices of the Holyoke District Court, the BBA submitted a brief by three Choate, Hall & Stewart (today, Choate) attorneys, Jack Cinquegrana, Michelle Dineen Jerrett, and Terrence Schwab.  The case arose out of necessity – thanks to the Gideon decision, all criminal defendants have a right to counsel.  If they cannot afford one, the state has a responsibility to provide one.  In Massachusetts, this has been provided under statute since 1983 by a combination of Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) staff attorneys and contracted bar advocates.

As of summer 2004, the hourly compensation scheme for bar advocates had not changed since 1986.  Due to the low rates ($30 to $54 an hour depending on the case) there was an increasing shortage of lawyers, particularly in western Massachusetts.  In early May, 2004, no attorneys reported for duty in Hampden County court to accept new criminal court case assignments, resulting in at least 19 indigent defendants being held in custody without counsel.  CPCS and the ACLU filed a petition in the SJC on behalf of those defendants.

The BBA stepped up to file a brief arguing that the state needed to adequately fund public defenders in order to attract a sufficient number of competent counsel and thatthe state had been underfunding indigent defense services since their inception.  On July 28, 2004, the SJC found that the defendants in these cases were being deprived of their right to counsel under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and urged all three branches of government to work together to fashion a remedy.  In August, the Legislature passed a bill to increase hourly rates for certain types of cases through a $16.3 million supplement to the fiscal year 2005 budget and create a commission to study indigent criminal defendant representation.  The final report recommended further increases over a multiyear period.  (For a more comprehensive history of CPCS and bar advocate compensation, see here).

A familiar debate continues today, and the BBA is continuing to weigh-in, most recently advocating for pay raises for CPCS staff attorneys and Assistant District Attorneys so that their base pay equals that of executive-branch attorneys.

Attorney-Client Privilege

The BBA frequently uses the amicus brief platform to argue for the preservation of the attorney-client privilege.  Attorney-client privilege is one of the oldest privileges recognized under law, with the intent of encouraging open and frank communication between attorneys and their clients to promote the broad public interest in the observation of law and administration of justice (see Upjohn v. United States).  The Ninth Circuit has called the privilege “perhaps the most sacred of all legally recognized privileges and its preservation is essential to the just and orderly operation of our legal system (see United States v. Bauer).

RFF Family Partnership v. Burns & Levinson

Two recent cases best illustrate our commitment to this principle.  In 2013, Bob Buchanan of Choate and also a long time member of the BBA’s Ethics Committee and Board of Bar Editors, led the team authoring our brief in RFF Family Partnership v. Burns & Levinson.  “Of Counsel” drafters included Harold Potter, Jr. of Holland and Knight LLP and William Southard of Bingham McCutchen LLP (now Morgan Lewis).  The case concerned whether confidential communications between law firm attorneys and a law firm’s in-house counsel concerning a malpractice claim asserted by a current client of the firm are protected from disclosure to the client by the attorney-client privilege.  In the case, the law firm Burns & Levinson was accused of malpractice in its representation of plaintiff RFF Family Partnership, LP in a commercial foreclosure property transaction.  After the attorneys on the case received a letter laying out the malpractice allegations, they consulted with Burns & Levinson partner, and BBA Council member, David Rosenblatt, who was designated to respond to ethical questions and risk management issues on behalf of the firm and had not at the time worked on any issues in the RFF matter.  Burns & Levinson did not bill RFF for any of the time devoted to these internal communications.

The BBA brief asked the court to state a clear rule applying attorney-client privilege when a lawyer consults with in-house ethics counsel, arguing that clients benefit when lawyers promptly consult in-house ethics counsel, that there is a sound legal basis for applying the privilege in these circumstances, and there is no basis for carving out a “fiduciary exception” to the privilege.  Specifically, the brief lays out a test for immediate application of attorney-client privilege in these sorts of consultations:

  1. In-house counsel has been formally or informally designated to provide advice to the law firm…
  2. In-house counsel does not work on the particular client matter that presents an issue; and
  3. The time spent by in-house counsel on advertising the law firm is absorbed by the law firm and is not billed or charged to any client.

The SJC concluded that confidential communications between law firm attorneys and in-house ethics counsel concerning malpractice claims of a current client are not subject to different standards under a “fiduciary exception” and are protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege “provided that (1) the law firm has designated an attorney or attorneys within the firm to represent the firm as in-house counsel, (2) the in-house counsel has not performed any work on the client matter at issue or a substantially related matter, (3) the time spent by the attorneys in these communications with in-house counsel is not billed to a client, and (4) the communications are made in confidence and kept confidential.”  Look familiar?

This decision and the, shall we say, slightly modified BBA test, have been cited by other states considering the same sorts of issues.  We are proud that our brief had such an impact and feel strongly that these are the sorts of issues on which the BBA must be a thought leader given the import of the privilege to the legal profession.

Commonwealth v. Wade

More recently, we defended attorney-client privilege in the case of Commonwealth v. Wade, in addition to arguing for the correct interpretation of the Commonwealth’s new post-conviction DNA testing law.  Followers of this blog know this case well – see our coverage throughout the case: December 2015 brief filed, January 2016 oral argument, August 2016 breaking down the SJC decision.  For those of you who may have missed it, the case revolves around interpretation of Chapter 278A, in particular, Section 3(b)(5), which permits new forensic testing if a defendant can show, inter alia, that the evidence has not already been subjected to the requested analysis.  The BBA advocated for passage of the law establishing this language, starting with our 2008 Task Force to Improve the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System, which published its Getting It Right report in 2010.  In 2012, the Governor signed a law that sets out five reasons why it would be justifiable for the requested analysis not to have been pursued, such that it should be pursued now:

(i) the requested analysis had not yet been developed at the time of the conviction;

(ii) the results of the requested analysis were not admissible in the courts of the Commonwealth at the time of the conviction;

(iii) the moving party and the moving party’s attorney were not aware of and did not have reason to be aware of the existence of the evidence or biological material at the time of the underlying case and conviction;

(iv) the moving party’s attorney in the underlying case was aware at the time of the conviction of the existence of the evidence or biological material, the results of the requested analysis were admissible as evidence in courts of the Commonwealth, a reasonably effective attorney would have sought the analysis and either the moving party’s attorney failed to seek the analysis or the judge denied the request; or

(v) the evidence or biological material was otherwise unavailable at the time of the conviction.

These prongs are nearly identical to the corresponding recommendation contained in Getting It Right.

The trial judge in the Wade case interpreted Ch. 278A, Section 3(b)(5) to require a lawyer to prove all of the prongs, rather than applying the disjunctive reading, as our brief argues and we believe the Legislature intended, that a lawyer must prove only a single prong.  Furthermore, the trial judge interpreted the fourth prong to require the attorney to show the “primary cause” or “actual reason” that DNA testing was not pursued at trial, applying a subjective standard to the “reasonable attorney” test.  Based on this interpretation, the trial judge required the defense attorney to violate attorney-client privilege by testifying on why the now requested DNA testing was not sought at the initial trial.

Our amicus brief, authored by a team from K&L Gates including former BBA Council member Mike Ricciuti, Kathleen Parker, and Patrick McCooe, argued that the fourth prong calls for an objective standard and that the law does not actually require a “primary cause” finding – the test is not to determine why the defendant’s attorney did not seek a different type of DNA testing at the time of trial, but rather, whether a reasonably effective attorney would have sought the requested analysis.  Thus, the judge erred in violating attorney-client privilege, and, in doing so, frustrated the purpose of the law in a way that could potentially chill future claims, denying wrongfully-convicted individuals a pathway to establish their innocence.

The SJC heard oral argument on January 11 (watch the video here).  The Justices pushed both sides to explain where to draw the line on protecting attorney-client privilege.  Counsel for the defendant argued, much like our brief, that an attorney should never have to violate the privilege to testify, because the law’s standard is objective, asking only what a reasonably effective attorney would do, and not whether the attorney in a particular case was or was not reasonably effective.  In her words, “The piercing of the attorney-client privilege was extreme judicial overreaching. It was excessive.”  While she conceded that it would be appropriate for the court to ask the lawyer about his or her decision making, the “attorney-client privilege should be sacrosanct.”

We couldn’t agree more.  And the SJC apparently feels the same, as the 6-0 decision issued July 29 held in line with the arguments of our brief, that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial judge to deny Wade’s motion for DNA testing based on his misinterpretation of the statute requiring the attorney to demonstrate the “primary reason” he did not seek the requested analysis. The decision makes clear that the statute’s plain language means each of the five prongs in the statute “provides a moving party with alternate pathways to establish that he or she is entitled to the requested [DNA] analysis . . . . Indeed it would be nonsensical to attribute a conjunctive meaning to the word ‘or’ as used in this section… ” (p. 12-13).  On the trial judge’s requirement of finding the “primary reason” or “actual reason” why DNA testing was not pursued at trial, the Supreme Judicial Court decision explains that this language does not appear in the act, and there is no other language indicating such a requirement (p.15).  Instead, the statute’s “reasonably effective attorney” test “is an objective one” (p. 16).  Thus, the trial judge erred when finding that attorney-client privilege had been waived, forcing trial counsel to reveal privileged communications, and denying Wade’s motion to strike those answers.  The “reasonably effective attorney” test “does not require testimony or an affidavit from trial counsel” (p.20).

The court reversed the rulings denying scientific testing and the motion to strike the protected attorney-client privileged testimony and remanded the case to the Superior Court for an order permitting the requested testing.

The outcome was truly a victory for access to justice and the practice of law.  We are proud to have played a role in helping to protect access to post-conviction DNA testing, a major tool in overturning wrongful convictions, and again safeguarding one of the most important tenets of legal practice in attorney-client privilege.

And these two cases are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The BBA has protected attorney-client privilege in each of the following cases as well:

  • 2007 – Bismullah v. Gates – The BBA signed onto a brief drafted by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and filed on behalf of a group of detainees at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit. The brief sought a protective order governing proceedings against Respondent Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates in order to reasonably protect access to classified information while addressing communications between the detainees and their counsel. The brief argued that legal representation is impaired if lawyers are not able to visit their clients as they find necessary to obtain the information they need and to consult with and inform their clients, as well as to establish the trust necessary to effective representation. On July 20, 2007, the appeals court ruled in line with our brief, that the Guantanamo captives’ attorneys should be allowed to review all the classified evidence in their clients’ cases.
  • 2007 – Hanover Ins. Co. v. Rapo & Jepsen Ins. Svcs., Inc. and Arbella Mutual Ins. Co. – This interlocutory appeal from the entry of a discovery order in an automobile dispute between insurers presented issues regarding attorney-client privilege and work product doctrine in the context of a joint defense agreement: whether Massachusetts law recognizes a joint defense privilege and whether an oral joint defense agreement is enforceable. The brief, authored by John Shope and Katherine Schmeckpeper of Foley Hoag, supported the appellants’ position that Massachusetts recognizes the common interest doctrine, sometimes known as the joint defense privilege. This doctrine, which is recognized in the majority of other states and federal law, permits parties with common interests to share communications protected by attorney-client privilege or the attorney work product doctrine without waving applicable immunity from disclosure. This facilitates the efficient resolution of litigation by increasing the sharing of information and division of labor among counsel working towards a common goal.  The SJC decision recognized the use and validity of joint defense agreements, and the exception to waiver of the attorney-client privilege under the common interest doctrine.
  • 2006 – ACLU v. NSA – the BBA signed onto this brief behind the leadership of then Amicus Committee Chair Deborah Birnbach, Goodwin. The brief challenged the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program on the grounds that it violated attorney-client privilege.  The issue arose out of a classified NSA foreign intelligence program, in existence since at least 2001, which was used to intercept international telephone and internet communications of numerous people and organizations within the United States without warrants, allegedly because of their history of communicating with people in or from the Middle East.  The amicus brief argued that the surveillance program undermined attorney-client privilege because the individuals accused by the government of wrongdoing should have access to legal advice, but such advice can be effective only if lawyer-client communications are conducted in confidence, uninhibited by fears of government wiretapping.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the brief, finding that the plaintiffs could not show that they had been or would be subjected to surveillance personally, and therefore lacked standing before the court.  One year later, the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal from the ACLU.
  • 2006 – Suffolk Construction Co. v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Division of Capital Asset Management – in a brief authored by Edward Colbert III, then of Looney & Grossman LLP, now with Casner & Edwards, the BBA supported DCAM’s position that government attorneys and their clients should not be exempted from attorney-client privilege. The brief argued on policy grounds that documents of government agencies/employees should enjoy protection from disclosure under the public-records law if the documents are subject to attorney-client privilege.  Aside from the hallowed position of the privilege in the history of law, the brief argued that clients of government attorneys include members of the public served by public agencies who deserve the privilege.  In addition, public officials and employees would be unfairly disadvantaged if their attorney communications were not protected.  Finally, the public interest is served by placing government attorneys on equal professional and intellectual footing as private attorneys, promoting the highest standards of legal excellence among all attorneys, whether they are engaged in public or private practice.  The SJC ruled in-line with our brief, protecting attorney-client privilege for government lawyers.
  • 2000 –U.S. v. Legal Services of New York City – the BBA signed onto a brief defending attorney-client privilege for legal services recipients. The case revolved around a dispute on whether the Inspector General could subpoena legal-services lawyers at Legal Services for New York City (LSNY) about their clients’ particular needs, in order to link clients’ names to their needs.  The brief argued that forced disclosure of this information would violate attorney-client privilege, harming clients and deterring them from seeking legal counsel, especially in sensitive cases such as domestic abuse, public benefits, child abuse or neglect, or mental health and disability rights.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals held against our amicus brief, permitting enforcement of the Inspector General’s subpoena.

As you can see, the BBA’s appellate advocacy through amicus briefs has had a major impact on the law in Massachusetts and beyond.  Stay tuned for more amicus highlights next week, when we will cover briefs on diversity and inclusion and opposition to capital punishment.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

2016-17 Program Year Begins!

Welcome to the new program year!  As Section Steering Committee meetings enter full swing, and the BBA again hums with activity, we wanted to take the opportunity to review some of our public-policy procedures while taking a look back on some highlights of our work from last year.

We are always interested in getting involved with matters of public policy to:

  • Increase access to justice
  • Provide fair and efficient administration of justice; and
  • Enhance the quality and practice of the law

While this sometimes entails the BBA taking a formal position in support or opposition of a bill, policy, or rule, more often than not we take a more nuanced stance.  Be it through amicus briefs, comments to the courts, or work on legislation, the BBA strives to represent reasoned positions of legal experts and to offer a unique perspective.  Sometimes that means we present conflicting views together, and we are comfortable with that.

For example, in April, BBA Council approved submission of comments from the Association and a number of Sections to the Trial Court Committee on Public Access to Court Records regarding the Proposed Uniform Rules on Public Access.  We have documented our involvement with this issue a number of times here on the blog.  In brief, we have been involved with this issue for over a year, and called together a special working group to scrutinize the proposed rule over a three month period early this year.  What may have been lost in the shuffle is that our comments reflect the existing oppositional views of the bar.  While practitioners in some areas had specific concerns, the major divide was between those wanting broad online access and those focused more on the privacy concerns that elicits.  We strove to adequately present both views to the courts for their consideration in drafting the rule and were pleased with the results, as the final rules appear to contain a number of amendments based on our suggestions.

In our policy work, one of the biggest consistent challenges we face is timing.  Our policy procedures have at times generated frustration, because it can sometimes take months for us to reach an official position.  We believe, however, that a process allowing us to get input from all our interested Sections, and to register viewpoints that may not initially have been apparent, helps us come to the best outcome.  This is especially important because one of our hallmarks is to stand by our positions, often for decades.  Therefore, we urge you to bring your policy or amicus requests to us with as much time as possible – it makes the process better for everyone.  However, that’s not to say we can’t speed things up when our voice is needed…

In mid-October, when we learned of Recinos v. Escobar, we knew it was a case that aligned with our principles, and that we had something to add to the discussion.  The case was taken up sua sponte by the SJC in expedited fashion to address the jurisdiction of the Probate and Family Court to hear the case of a 20-year old woman seeking federal Special Immigrant Juvenile status before her 21st birthday in December.

Since 1990, the federal government has provided for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status to children, defined by federal law as unmarried persons under the age of 21, as a pathway to seek legal permanent resident status.  SIJ status requires a finding of abuse, abandonment, or neglect by a specialized state court, and a determination that the child is dependent on the state court, in order to merit SIJ consideration by a federal immigration agency or federal immigration court. However, because the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court generally does not have jurisdiction beyond age 18, some judges felt constrained from making such findings for individuals who are 18, 19 or 20.

Thus, in Massachusetts, there was a very small class of young people that would otherwise qualify for SIJ status, but could be barred from doing so since the Probate and Family Court would not make a finding because they were aged 18 to 21.  According to immigration law practitioners, anecdotally, the Probate and Family Court sometimes extended equity jurisdiction to hear these cases, but that was not uniform and judges had no guidance on the matter.

We activated our Amicus Committee to promptly review the case and were able to get their affirmative recommendation and approval from BBA Council within a week to add our voice to the amicus brief just in time for the November 4 filing deadline.  The brief, which we signed onto with a coalition of concerned organizations and individuals, argued that the Probate and Family Court had equity jurisdiction over youths up to the age of 21 to enter the findings needed to be eligible for SIJ status.  Specifically, it argued that the pathway to permanent legal residency for immigrant youths required the state courts to play an essential role and that the Probate and Family Court had equity jurisdiction over these cases.  First, it argued that the Court’s equity jurisdiction was not limited by statute and made the case that the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights supported this sort of equitable remedy.  The brief further argued that children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected were dependent on the court to make such a finding since they had been mistreated and because such a finding was required to qualify for SIJ status.

On November 9, the SJC released its order, ruling in line with the brief – that the Probate and Family Court had equity jurisdiction to decide the case – and remanding to that court for further proceedings on an expedited basis, so that the appellant could have time to apply for SIJ status before her 21st birthday.  Four months later, the SJC released its full opinion, making clear that the Probate and Family Court has equity jurisdiction over youths between the ages of 18 and 21 for the purpose of making the necessary SIJ findings.

In addition to signing onto amicus briefs, we sometimes draft our own.  Two such cases that we’re especially proud of from this past year are Fisher v. Univ. of Texas (supporting affirmative action in higher education) and Comm. v. Wade (defending attorney-client privilege and access to post-conviction forensic testing). Of course, this requires even more time and work on our part.  Which brings us to…

Finally, we urge you to be flexible.  Especially when working with the Legislature, we only have so much control over the process and outcome.  We will do our best to streamline things as much as possible, but sometimes this means long waits to testify or last minute changes to legislation.  Or both, as was the case with our zoning reform bill, H3611, An Act relative to non-conforming structures.  We were very pleased when the Governor signed the bill into law on August 5, but that was only the final step in a long history.  The BBA has supported this bill in various forms since 1995, behind the leadership of its Real Estate Law Section, as a means of improving the clarity of Massachusetts zoning laws and thereby promoting economic and real estate development.

This bill amends Section 7 of Chapter 40A, concerning the enforcement of local zoning regulations. In particular, Section 7 spells out the circumstances under which violations of Chapter 40A, or a zoning by-law or ordinance, or a variance or permit, can lead to a “non-complying” building being ordered to be removed, altered, or relocated.  Prior to the passage of this bill, the law prohibited a municipality from taking such enforcement action more than ten years from the date after the commencement of the alleged violation.

However, Section 7 was incomplete, and did not explicitly provide that a building which had survived the statutory limitations period became a valid non-conforming structure.  As a result, if a structure which did not comply with current zoning laws was destroyed after ten years, it was not grandfathered under the zoning laws in effect when it was built, and it had to be rebuilt under new zoning requirements, which could be more restrictive or prohibitively expensive.

H3611 corrects this problem by granting legal status, subject to the provisions of G.L. c. 40A §6, as well as local ordinances or by-laws, to non-conforming structures that have survived the applicable statute of limitations.  This will provide clarity and thus offer protection to property owners and their lenders.  In limited circumstances, those structures, as they existed on the date they were erected or altered, would be deemed compliant with Chapter 40A (and any ordinance or by-law adopted in accordance with it) and thus valid, legally non-conforming structures.  By lifting the cloud of uncertainty created by the current law, H3611 will help real estate owners more freely convey or encumber property containing older non-complying buildings or building additions.

At the same time, the measure will have no adverse effect on municipalities, since it leaves unchanged their power to enforce their ordinances in this regard within ten years of the violation.  In fact, Section 3 of the newly enacted bill includes language intended to give municipalities an additional six months to take action on non-conforming structures that have been in existence for between nine and ten years as of the new law’s effective date in November.

But we could not have achieved this success without the devoted efforts of last year’s Section Co-Chairs, Hannah Kilson and Matthew Lawlor, along with Council member (and former Section Co-Chair) Michael Fee.  After the Real Estate Section Steering Committee reviewed the bill and decided to refile it around this time in 2014, we waited until mid-May 2015 for a Judiciary Committee hearing, at which Mike Fee testified.  In June 2015, the bill was reported out of the Judiciary Committee and referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means and shortly thereafter reported to the floor of the House, where it passed 151-0 before being delivered to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.  There, the bill underwent further review and over the course of a number of emails, phone calls, and meetings, BBA staff and Mike Fee heard legislators’ concerns and worked with them to craft amendments in order to win the support of the full Senate for final approval.  On May 5, the bill was debated and amended on the floor of the Senate and ultimately passed unanimously.  From there it was back to the House, which in late July concurred in the Senate amendment, finally being laid before the Governor on July 26, 2016.  Ten days later it was enacted – with a few tweaks and 20-plus years after initial endorsement by the BBA.  It was a long road, but well worth it.

Hopefully this has given you a bit of a window into the work we do and how it happens.  Patience, flexibility, and nuance are all key aspects of successful policy development at the BBA.  With that, welcome back one and all – we hope to be seeing you around the BBA and look forward to working with you on policy issues!

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association

Final FY17 Budget Update

On July 31, the legislative session came to a close, complete with a few overrides, by way of a two-thirds vote in each branch, of Governor Charlie Baker’s line-item vetoes to the budget that legislators had sent him (H4450).

In signing the budget on July 8, amid news that the Commonwealth could be facing as much as a nearly $1 billion budget deficit, the Governor exercised his authority to target many legislative appropriations for cuts amounting to $256 million.  The below numbers reflect the final state for the FY17 budget, after the Legislature reversed a number of those cuts, one by one, in the final days of session.

Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC)

  • Request: $27,000,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $17,170,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $18,000,000
  • House Final Budget: $18,500,000 ($500,000 added through a floor amendment)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $17,000,000
  • Senate Final: $18,000,000 ($1,000,000 added through a floor amendment)
  • Conference Committee Final: $18,000,000
  • Governor Final: $18,000,000
  • FY17 Final: $18,000,000

We are thrilled that the FY17 budget included an extra $1 million over last year’s figure in funding for legal services—a top BBA priority—and grateful to the Governor for not only sparing the MLAC line-item from his veto pen but also highlighting this increase in his budget message.  Given the extremely challenging budget situation, this increase is truly remarkable and demonstrates a clear commitment from both legislators and the Governor to assist those in need of civil legal aid.  It also continues to show the message of our BBA Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts—that MLAC funding produces a positive return on investment by preventing “back-end” costs—has gotten through.

Trial Court

  • Request: $654,374,856 + Modules for additional initiatives
  • Governor’s Budget: $638,606,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • House Final Budget: $639,900,000 (including Specialty Courts module)
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $643,484,303
  • Senate Final Budget: $643,484,303
  • Conference Committee Final: $639,762,683
  • Governor Final: $632,969,055
  • FY17 Final: $638,940,097

It is unfortunate that this final number was not higher, but we nevertheless greatly appreciate that the Legislature showed its strong support for the judicial branch by overriding the Governor’s vetoes on eight of sixteen Trial Court line-items, restoring roughly $6 million of the $6.8 million in cuts.  Failure to do so would have placed the courts in an alarming position, so we are grateful to legislators for making this a priority during the end-of-session crush of business and despite tough fiscal constraints.  We also note that the Legislature overrode vetoes for two of the four line-items funding the Supreme Judicial Court, restoring over $100,000 in funding for the Commonwealth’s highest court.

The next few years will be very important for court funding in order for the courts to continue to provide the highest level of justice for the people of Massachusetts.  Continued underfunding of the courts would exacerbate a number of challenges, from aggravating long-standing infrastructure problems (many court houses need significant repairs and updates as well as security updates) to stifling innovations such as the Specialty Courts program, which addresses the issues underlying criminal behavior and produces great outcomes by reducing recidivism.

Statewide Housing Court Expansion

  • Request: $2,400,000
  • Governor’s Budget: $1,000,000
  • House Ways and Means Budget: $0
  • House Final Budget: $0
  • Senate Ways and Means Budget: $1,194,614
  • Senate Final Budget: $1,194,614
  • Conference Committee Final: $0
  • Governor Final: $0
  • FY17 Final: $0

The BBA has been advocating for the statewide expansion of Housing Court for the last year. Housing Court has statutory jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases that involve the health, safety, or welfare of the occupants or owners of residential housing, as well as code enforcement cases. One of its greatest strengths is that its judges are experienced in these issues and best able to address the complexities and nuances of each case.

The total cost to the state for the expansion is estimated to be $2.4 million per year.  The Governor’s budget proposal included $1 million for Specialty Court, enough to get it started and operational for the last 6 months of FY17, but the House did not follow his lead, leaving this measure out of its budget entirely.  The Senate provided similar language and funding to the Governor’s proposal, but disappointingly, the Conference Committee did not include it.  So we will back making the case for Housing Court expansion in the new session, starting next January.  We look forward to the FY18 budget process and, as always, urge you to help us make your voice heard at the State House.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association