Lawyers Journal

DeLeo announces bold court reform plan

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo wants to transform the management of the state's courts by hiring a professional business administrator -- not a judge -- to handle all of its business aspects.

DeLeo announced his plan at a Boston Chamber of Commerce forum on March 15, where he also stated his preference to keep the scandal-ridden Probation Department under the authority of the courts. Gov. Deval Patrick wants to place it under executive branch control.

"After having spoken with [Supreme Judicial Court Chief] Justice [Roderick L.] Ireland and others … I believe that the functions of Probation are properly within the judiciary and so, should remain there. As the Harshbarger Report found, 'Probation officers act as trusted advisors to the judge … helping to design and impose probationary conditions that are most likely to help the offender avoid both incarceration and re-offense.' This makes sense to me."

DeLeo's speech also addressed municipal employee health insurance, gambling, hiring and tax policy, but he said the Probation Department, and the judiciary in general, has consumed the bulk of his attention recently. Legislation is being drafted, he said, that would assign all business aspects of running the Trial Court Department to "a professional, civilian court administrator with substantial expertise in finance and management."

Those duties -- facilities management, personnel management, accounting, capital planning, information-technology -- would be best handled, he said, by "a person trained not as a lawyer but instead, in the disciplines of business and management."

The separation of authority would allow the chief justices to focus on running their courts, DeLeo said. Currently, Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan oversees both the legal and business duties of the Trial Court Department.

"In separating the judicial and business functions of the court, the chief justices of each of the court departments will properly maintain responsibility for all other core judicial functions, such as monitoring caseload, assigning judges, judicial training and judicial discipline," DeLeo said.

In a press release, the MBA applauded DeLeo's "thoughtful, bold and decisive approach," saying it addresses more than 30 years of recommended best practices by court management experts, including an independent report it commissioned in 1991 and a 2003 court management study.

"The MBA through its members has been in the forefront of every debate surrounding judicial reform and legislation enacted during the past 50 years," said MBA Chief Operating Officer and Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy. "Lawyers, judges, litigants and the public deserve a system that is efficient and functions well. Although the courts have made strides, so much more remains to be accomplished. The tough economic climate, coupled with the recent media and legislative scrutiny over the Probation Department, provides a perfect opportunity to examine closely calls for greater reforms. We look forward to working with the Legislature and the courts to seek quick passage of court reform that includes a professionally trained non-judicial court administrator."

DeLeo said he is encouraged that the judiciary and the Legislature can work together.

"As I have been working closely with Justice Ireland, I believe that tension is a thing of the past as both branches are squarely focused on following the best practice in the administration of justice," DeLeo said.

"As I have delved into this area, I have sought to learn from and work closely with judicial leaders," he said. "My multiple meetings with Chief Justice Ireland have been instructive and productive. Largely because of what I believe to be a growing spirit of partnership around problem solving, we are getting closer to reaching the kind of consensus we need to assure excellence for our entire court system. These discussions have informed my thinking, as have the numerous independent reports and studies of the Massachusetts judiciary."

Ireland and Mulligan released a joint statement March 16. "We applaud Speaker DeLeo's efforts to work with court leaders on issues regarding management of the courts," it said. The statement noted that the current management structure was established by legislation a generation ago, and said they "welcome the challenge" of integrating management expertise for the courts' non-judicial aspects.

"We are proud of the many reforms that we, and the Trial Court Departments in particular, have made in court management since the Monan Committee issued its report in 2003. We are committed to improving the management of the courts in every way possible."

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association