Lawyers Journal

CJ Ireland: Judiciary at 
turning point

In his first address to the legal community since his confirmation as the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court last year, Roderick L. Ireland spoke of his hopes for the judicial branch -- including adequate funding -- and reaffirmed his commitment to the priorities he established in December.

"The judicial branch is at a turning point," he said at the Massachusetts Bar Association's annual Bench-Bar Symposium at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston on Oct. 13. "How we in the judiciary handle these changes will affect the quality of justice in the commonwealth for years to come. We cannot be paralyzed by unfolding events, but must embrace them as new opportunities."

The judiciary's budget woes was the first topic Ireland addressed in his speech. He shared the positive news that earlier in October, the House of Representatives proposed, and the Senate agreed to, a supplemental appropriation for the Trial Court. Ireland thanked House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray for their support of the bill, and expressed his hope that Gov. Deval Patrick would approve the appropriation, which he did Oct. 27.

"Legislative support for funding a fair, efficient and accessible system of justice is particularly noteworthy in this time of severe fiscal restraint," he said. "Fiscal year 2012 and beyond will continue to present many challenges for the courts."

At his swearing-in ceremony in December 2010, Ireland established three priorities for the judiciary: building bridges to the courts' constituencies; making the courts more accessible to the public; and educating the public, particularly the youth, about the role of the courts. He revisited those goals during his address at the Bench-Bar Symposium.

Building bridges

To Ireland, "building bridges" means that "everyone in Massachusetts has a stake in the fair and efficient administration of justice, [and] everyone has a role to play in securing that result," he said.

He spoke of the court management legislation passed in August, the orientation session with freshman legislators and ongoing efforts on behalf of the judiciary to reach out to and connect with the governor and the Legislature. Of the latter, he said, "the three branches may not always see eye-to-eye on what is best for the court system, but we all want what is best for the people of the commonwealth, and the groundwork for mutual trust and cooperation is strong."

He also spoke directly to the court staff, acknowledging that "there are fewer of you, and … you are being asked to do more and more with fewer resources … You are the unsung heroes of the judicial branch. Without you, our system of justice would grind to a halt."

Access to justice

Ireland said the judicial branch "must provide justice to the community as we find it, not the community as we once knew it or the community we might wish it to be."

A huge number of people come to the courts without a lawyer, terrified of losing custody of their children or possession of their house or apartment. Many do not speak English, or do not speak it well.

"It is not the job of these litigants, or any litigants, to make it easy for judges and court staff," Ireland said. "It is the duty of the judicial branch to make our courts more welcoming … We must make it possible for those who have been historically underserved to find justice."

To that end, he said, information desks in three courthouses, and more to come, are staffed with volunteers who connect court users with attorney referral lists and provide education about limited assistance representation. But there are not enough lawyers to go around, and some will want to represent themselves for other reasons. To serve those litigants, the Trial Court has received a grant from the State Justice Institute to translate small claims forms into multiple languages, and the Probate and Family Court financial statement is now available in Spanish and Portuguese.

"We cannot let fiscal constraints stop us from broadening access to justice, and what is good for unrepresented litigants is good for attorneys, and good for the administration of justice," he said. "Making the Massachusetts court system more user-friendly is not only a matter of equal justice, it's just plain good business practice."

Educating the public

"We find ourselves at a time when few people can correctly identify the three branches of government," Ireland said. "There is widespread public misunderstanding about the role of judges and the importance of an independent judiciary. I want to make the judicial branch a force in civic education, particularly about the role of the courts and the rule of law, and especially for young people."

The many programs offered at the John Adams Courthouse, through the MBA's Tiered Mentoring Program, through the Judicial Youth Corps and other organizations, are enriching the legal profession "in an era of increasing social, cultural and economic diversity," he said.

In his concluding remarks, Ireland said he has been chief justice for less than a year, but a judge in Massachusetts for nearly 35 years.

"I can think of no higher honor, nor anything more humbling, than to serve the people of this commonwealth by delivering justice and upholding the rule of law," he said. "I am hopeful and confident that the courts will weather these difficult economic times, because every day I see people of good will working so hard to keep our courts strong."

Cassidy Murphy is associate editor of custom publications for The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Journal.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association