Lawyers Journal

Time standards, staffing, construction and more mark busy first year for CJAM

The Hon. Robert A. Mulligan has just been in charge of the Trial Court for a little more than a year. But already the Chief Justice for Administration and Management has instituted time standards in every court department, hired 135 new court security officers, revamped two major court construction projects and is about to release a court staffing model, one of the court's most in-depth projects in recent history.

Needless to say, it's been a busy year for Mulligan, who stepped into the position last year on the heels of the Monan Commission Report, which called for massive improvements in the delivery of justice.

One of the most important of Mulligan's initiatives this year - the court staffing model - is due to be released soon. The plan, which outlines the number of employees needed courthouse to courthouse, has been almost a year in the making by a national expert on state courts as well as by many Trial Court judges and employees.

"This is real roll up your sleeves, sit down in a room, hammer these things out type of work," Mulligan said. "It's not easily achieved. And you can imagine a court staffing model is thought by many in the system to be quite threatening. 'Is this going to cost me my job or am I going to be transferred to some other court?' So you've got a lot of cultural pushback on something like this."

Massachusetts, though, has been much more receptive to this than other states. The expert hired to design the model, Chris Ryan, told Mulligan every state resists these types of projects, but Massachusetts has in fact been more embracing of it.

"Judges and the others and the chiefs deserve great affirmation and commendation for the their willingness to take this on and not rebuff it and not stonewall on it," Mulligan said.

As he talks about his accomplishments this past year, Mulligan is quick to thank the chief justices, who act as his cabinet, as well as employees throughout the Trial Court, from senior staff in the administrative office to those working in courthouses.

When he refers to the Trial Court, which is comprised of seven court departments and hundreds of employees, Mulligan likens it to a giant boulder sitting on top of a hill. That boulder represents the momentum of the employees throughout the system and he believes it is on the verge of moving because of the new ideas and programs that are being implemented. Once it starts rolling down the hill, it will only continue to pick up speed as more and more become enthused about changes taking place.

Court staffing model

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall spoke during the recent annual meeting of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL). Pictured (from left) are LCL Executive Director Bonnie Waters, LCL Vice President Frances McIntyre, Marshall, LCL President Michael Fredrickson and Massachusetts Bar Association President Kathleen O'Donnell. LCL is the state's sole lawyer assistance program, providing help to lawyers, judges and law students who are experiencing any level of impairment in their ability to function as a result of personal, mental health, addiction or medical problems.
In discussing the staffing model, Mulligan declined to provide specific details as he was awaiting a look at the final version. He did, however, indicate that the model makes recommendations on staffing on a court-to-court level rather than by job function. And there will be room for input.

"There has to be some human judgment that is going to be brought to bear here, given that not all courts have exactly the same physical layout; not all courts have exactly the same strength of employees; not all the courts have exactly the same case mix," he said.

One of outcomes of the model is paying more attention to the staffing needs for courts located in poorer communities. Though he stressed the importance of staffing all courts adequately, courts serving poorer individuals will be prioritized.

"Those courts are where we should put our resources," Mulligan said. "And the courts that deal with the more affluent areas, if we have to have a court that may not be staffed to a complete level we'd like to see it at, that's where the courts may have to deal with somewhat fewer staff members. The first priority is to make sure the courts deal in the areas where there is lower socio-economic, the poorer people that live in the commonwealth."

The Trial Court will respond to the model by studying which courts are suffering the most severe shortages. Then it will focus on how to reach an adequate employee level. For instance, if a court is currently only being staffed by 65 percent of its needs, the trial court will work to bring that staffing level up to closer to 90 percent. Employees in courts filled beyond 100 percent will not face job loss, as lowering the staffing level will occur over time through attrition, Mulligan said.

"We know that we're down more than 1,000 employees from where we were a couple of years ago," Mulligan said. "I don't think we could easily go to 100 percent staffing level. But if a court is at 50 percent, we want to bring that court up … that's a court we know has critical needs. We'll use the staffing model and we'll use the assessment of judgment from the chief justices of departments to identify the critical needs in various courts in each chief's department."

Time standards

When Mulligan stepped in to the position, developing time standards throughout the trial court was a priority. A year ago, the only department to have standards was the Superior Court, which had promulgated them for civil cases.

Today, there are criminal standards in the superior court and every other court has developed its own set of time standards, which lay out benchmarks for when certain activities in a case should occur. The standards vary department to department, and within each department, according to the complexity of the case.

Mulligan also is proud about how, for the first time, the Boston Municipal Court and the District Court developed identical time standards, a great accomplishment considering the history of friction between the two departments. Those standards become effective Nov. 1.

"I am very pleased at the hard work that went into that and the attitude of cooperation between the District Court and the Boston Municipal Court, and that's due in great part to the leadership of Chief Justice (Charles R.) Johnson and Chief Justice (Lynda M.) Connolly," Mulligan said.

Mulligan also commended the other Trial Court department chief justices, saying they worked hard to promulgate the standards. These will be important tools in achieving one of the central findings of the Monan Commission Report: the critical need of improving the speed at which justice is delivered in the commonwealth.

"They took the lead and they ran with it and they did an absolutely terrific job," Mulligan said.

MassCourts

The implementation of MassCourts, which will roll out first in the Land Court on Jan. 1, will serve as an important tool of monitoring time standards. But it also will be changing many other ways the Trial Court does business.

Mulligan said he is proud that Appeals Court Judge James McHugh agreed to serve as his special advisor on automation, to enable a smooth transition to the system. In addition, this year the Trial Court hired Craig Burlingame, former chief information officer for the city of Boston, a move that also will help the Trial Court with this massive undertaking.

"With that team in place, I feel relieved about the progress and the success of MassCourts," Mulligan said. "When I came in office a year ago, I said this was a major thing I had to deliver. It was of something of concern to me at the time, but getting these two individuals to lead this effort, I'm confident."

Individual calendar system

Though he met some resistance, Mulligan said he is enthused about instituting an individual calendar system through the Probate & Family Court as well as the Land Court. One year ago, half of the Probate & Family Courts were using the individual calendar system, which assigns a particular case, from start to finish, with a particular judge.

The change promotes accountability, efficiency and expeditious delivery of justice, according to Mulligan, who credited Probate & Family Court Chief Justice Sean M. Dunphy and Land Court Chief Justice Karyn Faith Scheier for their leadership. He is considering how a similar system might also be successful in the Juvenile Court.

To improve efficiency in the Superior Court, Mulligan is considering having judges share sessions for certain time periods to improve continuity and greater consistency in ruling on pre-trial motions and setting up for trial.

Building courthouses

Mulligan also has instituted a new vision for building courthouses. Ground was broken on new courthouses in Worcester and Plymouth counties, and following Mulligan's appointment, those projects changed substantially.

For new construction, Mulligan is adamant that when new courthouses are built, they house all court departments. That was not the case with, for example, the initial Worcester County courthouse project, which called for leaving the Probate & Family and Juvenile courts in separate locations. Plans have been changed to include all five courts. The $180 million project will give Worcester County the largest courthouse in the state, with 26 courtrooms. A similar change took place with the Plymouth County project.

More construction projects are being discussed for Taunton, Salem and Lowell. If it's not feasible to build courthouses with all departments in one location, the construction of a new courthouse will occur simultaneously with the rehabilitation of any court building in that community where the court is operating.

"I think we have an obligation to the citizens who are going to be using these courthouses 50 years out to use our best judgment on how we should be building and operating the courts," Mulligan said. "Certainly when you put all courts in one building, there are many efficiencies that can be achieved, such as the transferability of employees, the use of court officers, a common location for jury pool. That's the model we're going to follow and I'm committed to it."

More court officers

This year Mulligan also stepped up security by hiring 135 court officers, thanks to increased funding from legislators. Those officers have been distributed throughout the state. Of the 1,335 applicants, the Trial Court hired those who had excellent attendance records, several of whom have military backgrounds.

The most inspiring event Mulligan attended since becoming CJAM was the graduation ceremony for the new officers.

"I walked up on the stage, handed them the badge and more than half said, 'I appreciate very much having this position. Thank you for this. I will not let you down.' I thought it was a great event and a great group of people," he said.

And he's holding those officers to standards. He told them frankly during the graduation ceremony that he has three priorities. The first was, don't abuse sick time.

"It's not tantamount to vacation time," he said. "(One of the officers said to me) 'Sick time is when you are on your deathbed. Otherwise, if you don't come to work you put your coworkers in a jam.' I like that. It's a philosophy we all should have in the system. I think we do have that to a large extent."

Secondly, Mulligan urged court officers to volunteer to help out in other sessions when their session was not busy. Third, he told the officers to "keep your mouth shut," avoiding idle chatter and passing along gossip. These priorities are as important as others in keeping the Trial Court in track on its mission to improve the delivery of justice, he said.

Performance evaluations

An initiative that has yet to be kicked off involves performance evaluations. That is something that likely won't begin until after the first of the year, due to the amount of other projects already occurring.

But when it does take place, Mulligan envisions an expert from the National Center for State Courts to meet with about 35-40 judges to discuss how courts are assessed. After that takes place, Mulligan said one evaluation would be common to all departments, while each court department would have another specific to its needs.

Mulligan acknowledges he has imposed many new programs, which is why he has not as of yet kicked off performance evaluations.

"We've got a lot of things going on here," he said. "I want to be very sensitive to the fact that we are imposing a lot of things on the courts here."

Mulligan said there are some smaller projects that individual courts may take on to improve performance, such as doing spot checks on file systems to see how courts are doing with file integrity. Another idea is to use ambassadors at the doorsteps of multiple-department courthouses so that those coming to the courts will receive direction on where they need to go.

More challenges along the way

Looking back on the past year, Mulligan said he is enjoying his position, although he says he would like to be able to spend more time with his family. Still, he is challenged by the position and likes to be a part of something where he can make a difference, whether it is in developing new models for how courthouses should be staffed or in meeting with employees throughout the system.

One of his favorite initiatives is taking his monthly meetings with chief justices on the road. Together with Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, Mulligan and the chiefs have spent several meetings this year in different parts of the state, such as in Salem, Brockton, Pittsfield and Springfield.

The meetings give the justices an opportunity to meet with legislators and members of the bar within the community. They also spend time with employees in the courts they are visiting for the meeting. They have become one of the most enjoyable aspects of Mulligan's job, as he's continually impressed with the employees in the system.

"I believe that everybody in the system wants to be part of an organization known for its excellence," Mulligan said. "It's more and more work for them, we're imposing more requirements, but people really have taken them on.

"We have cohesive support - from the judges to the (employee) who just joined the organization. We are building a sense of solidarity, working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to produce justice more expeditiously … I'm very proud to be CJAM of an organization which has so many fine, hard-working, dedicated people."

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association