Independent judiciary, lawyer well-being highlight State of the Judiciary

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 By Cameron Woodcock
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Photo Credit: Jeff Thiebauth
Top: Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants delivers his annual State of the Judiciary Address on Oct. 24.

Bottom (from left): Trial Court Administrator Jonathan S. Williams; Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey; Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants; MBA President Christopher A. Kenney; and MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants gave his fifth signature speech to the legal community as the Massachusetts Bar Association presented its Annual State of the Judiciary Address on Oct. 24, at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. 

During his welcome remarks to the crowd of attorneys, judges and legislators, MBA President Christopher A. Kenney touted the importance of strong bench-bar relations and emphasized that the judiciary “will always have a partner in the MBA.” Along those lines, he thanked Gants and Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey for their unequivocal support of the MBA Trial Academy, which will be expressly designed to foster greater representation and swifter justice in the courts.

To highlight the MBA’s yearlong theme of civic responsibility, Kenney also discussed his recent experience as a prospective juror in a medical malpractice case. Kenney said he was rightly disqualified from jury service based on his familial and professional conflicts, leaving him confident that the Trial Court’s thorough screening process will result in a fair trial. 

“This is another example of civics working in the court system,” said Kenney.

Following his introduction by Kenney, Gants spoke to the need for increased attention to the mental health of attorneys, too many of whom are overburdened by the high demands of legal work. Of approximately 13,000 lawyers surveyed in 2016, Gants said, between 21 and 36 percent struggled with excessive drinking, 28 percent with depression, 19 percent with anxiety, and 23 percent with stress. 

“The practice of law has always been demanding, but it is especially challenging now, fraught with ever-increasing financial pressures, client demands and work expectations that are taking a terrible toll on many of our most resilient attorneys," Gants said.

As a result, Gants announced that the SJC recently formed a Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, which will examine new ways of supporting attorneys as they work to manage the rigors of the legal profession. 

Though a proponent of the criminal justice reforms enacted earlier this year, Gants said legislators and members of the judiciary must further commit to addressing the widespread issue of recidivism in Massachusetts. He stressed the fundamental role of the probation department in helping former prisoners integrate back into society, and called on the state to fully invest in officer training and inmate reentry services.

Gants closed by acknowledging a recent string of threats to the independence of the judiciary, including legislative efforts to remove individual judges. He said judicial rulings are always subject to public scrutiny, but that punishing judges based on unpopular decisions undermines the promise of equal justice under the law. 

“If we are to provide every person fair and impartial justice in our courts, we must allow judges to make decisions based on their best judgment of the law and the facts, unburdened by any fear that a controversial decision may jeopardize their career," Gants said.

Carey echoed Gants’ comments about the importance of an independent judiciary, which will be one of several key issues featured in the Trial Court’s new Speakers Bureau program. According to Carey, the program coincides with the Trial Court’s desire to increase public awareness around the operation of the judicial system. 

Carey also highlighted recent efforts aimed at promoting greater diversity in the court system and expanding access to specialty courts. By the end of this fiscal year, Carey said, Drug Court services will be available to all Massachusetts citizens, regardless of their place of residence. 

Trial Court Administrator Jonathan S. Williams concluded the State of the Judiciary with updates on technological advancements and other efficiencies made in courthouses around the commonwealth. He said the courts continue to move toward mandatory e-filing in civil cases, and are currently working with several police departments to implement the Electronic Application for Criminal Complaint.

Click here to view photos from the 2018 State of the Judiciary Address.