The Massachusetts Bar Association this fall will implement an electronic judicial evaluations system to identify success and shortcomings among the state's judges and to encourage educational and enhancement programs for the judiciary.
The evaluation system, which was approved by the MBA's House of Delegates at its March 25 meeting, will identify and address those situations where a judge has exhibited a pattern of behavior in the courtroom that demonstrates a lack of judicial temperament or disrespectful courtroom demeanor or failure to timely discharge his/her administrative duties. The evaluations, which initially will be limited to the MBA's 18,500 members statewide, are not designed to criticize judges for exercising their discretion and independence in decisions, which is the hallmark of our state's long-respected and distinguished judiciary.
The plan for judicial evaluations was developed by the MBA's Judicial Evaluations Task Force, which is co-chaired by President-Elect Kathleen M. O'Donnell, Esq., Lowell and Vice President John G. Dugan, Esq., Medfield. Other members are Robert Cannon, Esq. Yarmouth Port; Kevin Giordano, Esq., Springfield; Steven Hoffman, Esq., Newton; Mary J. Kennedy, Esq., Springfield; Francis J. Lynch, III, Esq., South Easton; Edward McIntyre, Esq., Clinton; Michael E. Mone, Esq., Boston; Marc G. Perlin, Associate Dean, Suffolk University Law School, Boston; Jeffrey Stern, Esq., Boston; J. Owen Todd, Esq., Boston; and ex-officio member Martin W. Healy, General Counsel, Massachusetts Bar Association.
The last time the Massachusetts Bar Association conducted independent judicial evaluations was in 2000. That survey of 4,000 members resulted in a 92 percent favorability rating of the state's judges.
The 1992 Massachusetts Court Reform Act mandates judicial evaluations. The law requires evaluations of each judge either every 12-18 months or every 18-36 months. The statute also mandates "judicial evaluation standards" and "disciplinary procedures for judges who do not complete programs implemented for judges who fail to achieve judicial evaluation standards." In researching the status of the court's evaluation processes, the MBA's Judicial Evaluations Task Force was unable to determine whether any judicial evaluation standards, disciplinary procedures or programs have been established.
The task force also learned that, in part because state funding was not forthcoming, the first evaluation form was not devised until 1998 and the first round of evaluations was not conducted until spring 2001.
Currently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's Committee on Judicial Performance Evaluation consists entirely of sitting judges. One paid staff person conducts the evaluation process by distributing and collecting written performance questionnaires. The task force found this evaluation method to be labor-intensive, time-consuming, costly and inefficient. In addition, the task force could not determine any effort to improve judicial performance after a poor evaluation. Although the results are made available to individual judges and to their chiefs, no enhancement programs have been developed or implemented.
"One of the most important missions of the Massachusetts Bar Association is to assist in whatever way we can to promote the fair and efficient administration of justice," said MBA President Richard C. Van Nostrand.
"In Massachusetts, we have a judiciary unrivaled in this country. This is due in large part to an appointment system that is far superior to the election processes used in many other states," Van Nostrand explained. "Following appointment, however, it is important that an ongoing evaluation procedure is in place to provide a timely and independent barometer of that quality and to identify judges who would benefit from enhancement efforts within the court's internal administration.
"We are confident that the ongoing judicial evaluation process proposed by the task force and adopted unanimously by our House of Delegates will accomplish both of those goals."
The MBA's judicial evaluations will be overseen by a 12-member Standing Committee on Judicial Evaluations appointed by the MBA president. The committee will consist of prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, civil lawyers, domestic relations lawyers, lawyers from firms with more than 200 members, lawyers from firms with fewer than 10 lawyers, solo practitioners, judges and representatives from legal services.
An evaluation form developed by the MBA, which was used in the association's previous evaluations and is similar to the form used by the SJC, will be available to MBA members on the association's Web site (www.MassBar.org). Following a court session, an attorney will be able to go online and file an evaluation of his or her experience. The form also will be available in a printable format. All submissions will be secure and confidential.
Results will be evaluated monthly by the Standing Committee. Quarterly reports will be sent to the chiefs of the individual courts with a request to submit the reports to individual judges and to the Chief Justice of Administration Management. The Standing Committee will make every effort to work cooperatively with the judiciary to improve a judge's performance.
The results of the evaluations will be confidential, unless the Standing Committee determines it is in the interest of the administration of justice to make them public. In such a case, the committee would recommend publication to the MBA officers, who would use their discretion.
The Standing Committee also will publish an annual report documenting the overall results of the evaluations (information concerning individual judges will not be included). This report will be made available to the public and will be sent to the SJC and to the legislature.