Two years after the Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts issued its Monan Report, and one year after the appointment of the Court Management Advisory Board, judges, lawyers and management experts are pleased with the progress of court reform initiatives.
“I think the timetable in which Chief Justice (for Administration & Management Robert A.) Mulligan has addressed the Monan initiatives — time standards, staffing models, MassCourts computerization and now performance evaluations — is extraordinary,” said Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly, Administrative Office of the District Court.
“I’m optimistic and encouraged that this effort is really going to result in more efficient and effective management of the court over time, which is what Massachusetts deserves,” said Court Management Advisory Board member Ann Margulies, executive director, OpenCourseWare, MIT.
The Monan Report recommended the court system commit to a new leadership style, create a culture of high performance and accountability and establish discipline in resource allocation to address a system in which “the impact of high-quality judicial decisions is undermined by high cost, slow action and poor service to the community.”
“The Monan Report goals are the blueprint for court reform,” said CMAB Chairman Michael B. Keaton, Foley Hoag LLP, Boston.
“In Massachusetts, we have a court system where substantively, in terms of quality of judges and quality of decisions, it is as good or better than any in the country. However, from an administrative point of view, in terms of delay and how resources are allocated, we are not in a very favorable position,” he explained.
“The objective of my group, and Chief Justice Mulligan, is to bring management up to the same quality as the substantive decision-making,” Keating continued. “Getting the good judges in, quality people, has been done for generations, but now we need to focus on the management part.”
Among the Monan Report’s key recommendations were the development of staffing models and time standards. Steps to achieve these goals have been implemented under the direction of Mulligan.
According to Margulies, Mulligan’s “vision is that Massachusetts Trial Courts become a national model of excellence.”
Staffing models allocate resources fairly As Mulligan assumed office in October 2003, there was a great deal of publicity about disparate allocation of resources: Courts closer to Boston received more financial support than western Massachusetts courts.
In order to address the concerns, Mulligan needed an objective basis to determine if resources were in fact allocated unevenly or unfairly. “We took that up as a priority initiative,” he said.
All seven departmental chief justices worked with people in their courts and the human resources department of the Trial Court. With the guidance of an expert from the National Center for State Courts, they produced a staffing model for all court divisions.
According to a staffing analysis, some state courts were running with far fewer clerical and other support staff than needed. Others appeared to be well-staffed but were in fact performing the functions of other courts in addition to their own.
“We went through a critical needs process with each chief justice of the seven Trial Court departments. As a result of that process, we identified the most pressing needs across the system,” said Mulligan.
His staffing model solution did not require the transfer of personnel, but instead relied on creatively transferring funds to hire new personnel.
The staffing model filled 109 positions in various divisions of the Trial Court. Worcester County Superior Court, which was operating at about 50 percent staff, added five clerical personnel; Springfield District Court added five personnel; and Holyoke District Court added three, raising its staffing level from 55 percent to 75 percent.
Mulligan acknowledges that his authority to transfer money among courts is the reason the staffing model was possible.
As of publication deadline, the legislature had not decided whether to extend the ability to transfer money in the new fiscal year.
“I will be considerably hamstrung trying to operate the court without transferability of funds,” cautioned Mulligan.
Time standards improve accountability When Mulligan became CJAM, the Superior Court had time standards on the civil side, but there were no time standards in the criminal or in any other court department.
As of Sept. 1, 2004, each court has promulgated time standards in every Trial Court department.
Before the implementation of time standards, “there was no way to determine objectively whether a case was being delayed. Now we have a timeframe for every case in every Trial Court department,” said Mulligan.
Margulies has been impressed with the significant progress Chief Justice Barbara J. Rouse, Superior Court, and Chief Justice Connelly have made in establishing time standards. “Hopefully other courts will be able to build upon some of the best practices that come from their courts,” said Margulies.
Rouse has undertaken a long-term project, the “civil firm, fair trial date” initiative, with the goal of having the first trial date be the actual trial date.
Last fall, in Superior Court civil cases, 61 percent of the court’s docket had one or more previous trial dates. Approximately 57 percent of the continuances came about at the request of one or both of the attorneys; 38 percent were continued because the court did not reach the case.
“What’s ‘fair’ about this is that it is a date that is set well in advance of trial, at pretrial conference, after both the court and counsel check personal and professional calendars and witnesses’ schedules. The court will assess whether the case is ready, the length of time to try the case, and what kind of case it is, so we can move toward an informed trial calendar. There will be fewer number of cases set per week, they will be staggered through the week, and consideration will be given to cases based on whether they are likely or unlikely to settle,” said Rouse.
Rouse also seeks to implement time standards on the criminal side of the Superior Court. “When there were no time standards, a case was decided at whatever pace that was. A case could take a few months or several years. We had an unacceptable number of aged cases and defendants incarcerated awaiting trial. Chief Justice Mulligan has made the time standards initiative a priority,” she said.
“People are working very hard to meet this challenge,” Rouse added. “The case numbers are dropping overall, and the number of aged cases is dropping.”
According to Connolly, court leaders have been studying case flow management techniques that could be applied to ensure cases are disposed of within the time standards. “Case flow management is in essence the implementation of time standards,” said Connolly.
The Administrative Office of the District Court is studying ways to ensure that every court event is “a meaningful event,” eliminating delay and ensuring that the court event that is scheduled actually goes forward.
“We tried to get our heads around what do we have in each of our courts in terms of cases and what is it that we need in terms of judicial staffing, clerk staffing, clerical staffing, jury days and courtroom space in order to start to comply with time standards,” said Connolly.
In addition, Connolly reorganized the administration of the district courts from five regions to eight.
“It seemed to me that in order to really implement time standards, in order to know the courts as well as the regional administrative judge needs to, in order to comply with standards and to provide each court with the resources that they need, we needed more hands-on management,” said Connolly.
She added, “It’s not time standards for the sake of time standards; it’s time standards for the sake of being accountable to the people in Massachusetts.”
MassCourts system automates, integrates operations A major achievement in the implementation of the Web-based MassCourts system occurred when the case automation system went live in the Land Court on Feb. 1.
“It’s proved to be an excellent tool for Land Court judges, recorders and employees in the management of their cases and docket. It has required certain minor changes in the way they do their business, but overall, Chief Justice Karyn Scheier and the other judges, recorder Deborah Patterson, and the other employees have evaluated it as extraordinarily helpful in improving the delivery of justice in the Land Court,” said Mulligan.
The MassCourts team is now engaged in the conversion of Criminal Activity Record Information into the MassCourts’ database, a requisite before MassCourts can be used on the criminal side of the Trial Court department.
The system has yet to be implemented in other Trial Court departments. Mulligan believes the rollout schedule will likely be established in September and will be implemented on a department-by-department basis rather than county-by-county.
According to Mulligan, “The exciting thing about MassCourts is that all the court departments will be operating on the same platform so that the Trial Court as a whole can integrate with external agencies like the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the Criminal History Systems Board, the Department of Corrections, the Board of Bar Overseers and other external agencies and entities, including police departments for the electronic filing of complaints.”
Margulies points out that MassCourts “is critically important to be able to collect the information that the CJAM as well as chief justices will need to effectively manage their courts. If you don’t have the data, it will be really hard to make progress or any kind of improvement.”
Performance evaluations another important tool The courts are adopting a performance enhancement guide, produced by the Boston Municipal Court, to improve work performance.
The Human Resources Department has produced a performance review instrument that is being examined by departmental chiefs. Mulligan expects the courts to conduct a performance review of court managers starting in September.
Empirical evidence will be used to measure success Mulligan has found the input of CMAB helpful in focusing on court reform initiatives. “In general, the business-oriented [members of the board] have made it clear to me that they believe you can’t show progress unless you can do so empirically… It’s one thing to talk about the progress you are making, but the question is how are you using it and how has it had a positive impact on administration of justice and management of the court system,” he said.
CMAB member Leo V. Boyle, of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Fitzgerald, PC, Boston, agrees.
“The board, and particularly the nonlawyers on the board, have really brought a freshness of view and a clarity of perspective on what they see as things the court system can do to get even better,” he said. “They think very quantitatively.”
While progress has been substantial, everyone agrees that the job is far from complete.
“Part of our role is to help to create a sense of urgency to move initiatives forward, but also to tie them altogether,” noted Margulies.
Setting goals is one unfinished piece of business, according to Keating. “A Blue Cross/Blue Shield administrator can tell you what its goals are. In the court system, it’s hard for people to define what is success in our system and that’s one of the things we’re working towards.”
One thing no one wants to do is sacrifice justice in the name of efficiency.
“We have extremely dedicated judges, clerks, and court reporters. We have extremely hardworking jurors. The verdicts are pure and fair, not always happy for one side or the other, but they are extremely fair. The end product is as close as you can come to perfect justice,” said Boyle.
“We don’t want to lose that in making the system more efficient, and I don’t think we will. So now the trick is to…make the path to the trial more predictable, sure, and shorter.”