State of the Judiciary speakers address court successes, challenges

Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016
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Photos by Eric Haynes.

By Malea Ritz

Court leaders, legislators and bar leaders gathered for the annual State of the Judiciary Address on Oct. 20, presented by the Massachusetts Bar Association, where they heard speeches from MBA President Jeffrey N. Catalano, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey and Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence.

While each speaker highlighted judicial-branch accomplishments and praised recent bench-bar relations, several speakers addressed racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system and the impact of the ongoing opioid crisis, among other topics.

For example, citing statistics showing a disparity in incarceration rates for people of color, Gants spoke about the need to "better fulfill our promise to provide equal justice for every litigant." He noted that according to Sentencing Commission data from 2014, the rate of imprisonment for African-Americans was 5.8 times greater than for whites in the U.S., and nearly 8 times greater in Massachusetts. In the U.S. the rate of imprisonment for Hispanics was 1.3 times greater than for whites, while in Massachusetts it was nearly 4.9 times greater, he said..

"We need to find out why," Gants said, before announcing that he has asked Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow to put together an independent research team to look into the reasons for the disparity in incarceration rates.

In his opening remarks, MBA President Jeff Catalano also touched upon the need to eradicate bias in the court system, and he announced that the MBA, through MBA Vice President John Morrissey, would be holding a program about dealing with implicit bias in our legal system on March 22, 2017. Catalano also expressed a "need for more qualified and diverse judges" and referred to an upcoming panel focused on how to become a judge, aiming to take some of the mystery and intimidation out of the process.

During her remarks on the Trial Court, Carey reported that the court system is using its 44 specialty courts to help address the opioid and mental health crisis. Franklin County and Hampshire County both saw the creation of new courts, she said. Carey also discussed efforts to improve the user experience and better serve everyone interacting with the court system.

The number of drug courts has also doubled, Spence added. Additionally, the Trial Court has implemented a unified case management system and is in the process of transitioning to a fully automated digital operation, anticipated for completion by the end of 2019, he said.

In his last state of the judiciary address before his retirement next April, Spence concluded, "I am grateful to you all for how you have embraced change, and look forward to learning of your continued progress in the days ahead."

The MBA's Jason Scally contributed to this report.