President's Message: Harness our Strength in Numbers

Thursday, March 21, 2019 By MBA President Christopher A. Kenney
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MBA President Christopher A. Kenney

Earlier this month I had the privilege of speaking on behalf of the Massachusetts Bar Association at a summit of chief justices and bar association leaders, where I conveyed the MBA’s continuing support for the Trial Court’s fiscal year 2020 funding request. The MBA has always been one of the strongest advocates for our brothers and sisters in the judiciary, and in recent years our efforts have met with notable success on Beacon Hill, from judicial pay raises to expansion of the Housing Court to last year’s landmark criminal justice reform.

For FY 2020, the Trial Court has requested nearly $738 million ($737,990,232, to be exact), the amount needed to maintain its current operations and sustain recent advances. There are indications, however, that it may be a tougher sell this year. Already, Governor Charlie Baker’s “House 1” budget proposal for FY2020 recommends a $21 million shortfall for the Trial Court. While the governor’s budget proposal is only the start of the budget conversations at the State House, it’s clear that the Trial Court needs our help again to secure the funding to further its mission of delivering “justice with dignity and speed.”

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants relayed an anecdote at the March 5 meeting of bench and bar leaders, which explains why one of the biggest challenges for the judiciary is getting elected officials to understand how critical the courts’ issues are for the people of the commonwealth. As one official told him, they don’t hear people talking about it at diners and other places where they regularly run into their constituents.

It’s true, most people don’t think of the courts, until they need the courts. But each day the Trial Court is busy tackling some of the most critical issues of the day, including homelessness and criminal justice matters, just to name a couple. As lawyers, we understand this because we see it in court or hear about it from our clients. That’s why we are a natural constituency for the Trial Court and why, with our strength in numbers, we are its most effective advocate.

We also understand that the funding sought each year in the Trial Court’s budget request is more than just money needed to keep courthouses open and judges paid. Unlike many other jurisdictions, the Massachusetts Trial Court is fiscally responsible for its own security (court officers are the third largest public safety group in Massachusetts), as well as probation (in many states, an executive branch function). Not everyone understands this, so it’s incumbent on us to get the word out and explain why this is important.

This year, the Trial Court is also seeking a $160 million information technology bond bill — its first since 1997. I believe it is vital that our Trial Court secure this money, so it can make the needed IT improvements to its operations, courtrooms and courthouses, and security, including physical security, digital security and inmate tracking. A more modern Trial Court benefits us all.

We also must use our strength in numbers to support our friends in the judiciary beyond the numbers. Over the past year we saw several instances where unpopular, but otherwise lawful, decisions were skewered in the press or triggered calls for impeachment. Judicial accountability is indeed important, but not at the expense of lawful judicial independence. A lot of the criticism we’ve seen of judges’ decisions is based on misunderstood legal principles, including the purpose of bail. Again, lawyers are in the best position to help clear up confusion, or, when necessary, to actively defend judges’ independence from baseless attacks.

Finally, I believe we have a duty to support the court’s efforts to support us and the health of our profession. This past year, the SJC launched its Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, recognizing that stress, substance use and mental health issues are common among the legal community. I welcome the SJC’s efforts to address these important issues together, and I’m proud that my colleague, MBA Vice President Denise Murphy, is representing the MBA on the SJC’s committee.

Bar associations and law firms can each contribute to improving the overall wellness of our profession. We need to spread the word about the range of helpful resources available through Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Mentoring programs, such as the MBA’s MentorMatch, are also effective ways to support one another. We’re in this together, and we owe it to ourselves and our committed partners in the judiciary to support everyone in our profession who may be struggling.

We’ve seen the power of what our strength in numbers can do. There is no more inspiring image than that of the hundreds of lawyers who gather at the State House each January for the Walk to the Hill for Civil Legal Aid. Let’s again harness the power of our collective voices to support our Trial Court, our judges and access to justice for everyone.