Gants Highlights Attorney Wellness, Civil Justice In Annual State Of The Judiciary Address

Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019 By Cameron Woodcock
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Photo Credit: Jeff Thiebauth

Top: Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants speaks to the Massachusetts legal community during his State of the Judiciary Address on Oct. 30.

Bottom (from left): MBA President John J. Morrissey, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, Trial Court Administrator Jonathan S. Williams, MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy, and MBA President-elect Denise I. Murphy.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants detailed efforts to improve attorney wellness and access to civil justice as he delivered his sixth Annual State of the Judiciary Address on Oct. 30 at an event presented by the Massachusetts Bar Association. 

Speaking to a large assembly of legal professionals and legislators at the John Adams Courthouse, Gants announced the formation of a permanent SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, as proposed by the steering committee launched one year ago. The standing committee will seek to address the range of issues documented by the steering committee in its final report, including work-related stress and isolation, mental health challenges, and alcohol and substance use disorders. MBA President-elect Denise I. Murphy, who served on the steering committee, will now co-chair the standing committee alongside retired SJC Justice Margot Botsford. 

To further support the steering committee’s recommendations, the SJC will establish a pilot mentoring program for newly admitted solo and small-firm attorneys, as well as distribute a statewide survey to gather needed demographic information on members of the bar, Gants said. Praising MBA President John J. Morrissey for his attention to the issue of incivility, Gants noted that the SJC Committee on the Rules of Professional Conduct will examine whether the rules sufficiently account for instances of bullying.
 
As part of its ongoing emphasis on wellness, the SJC has also created a Working Group on Substance Use and Mental Health to study how the courts can best attend to the needs of users with substance use and mental health disorders, Gants said.

In highlighting new developments related to civil cases, Gants announced that the SJC recently approved an increase from $25,000 to $50,000 in the procedural amount for damages actions in the District and Boston Municipal courts. At the same time, he stressed the importance of legal representation in Housing Court eviction proceedings, where more than 90 percent of tenants and 30 percent of landlords appear without counsel. Gants then acknowledged legislative efforts currently underway in Massachusetts to provide counsel for indigent litigants in eviction cases, adding that funds should be made available for temporary rental assistance and access to alternative housing.

“Until we create a world in which all who need counsel in civil cases have access to counsel, we must do all we can to make the court system more understandable and accessible for the many litigants who must represent themselves,” Gants said. Specifically, he noted that the judiciary hopes to create a virtual court service center to offer helpful information for self-represented litigants. 

Gants’ annual address followed introductory remarks by Morrissey, who explained that the steering committee’s report inspired him to focus his presidency on promoting inclusion, civility and fellowship at the MBA and throughout the profession. Morrissey said he and his fellow officers, along with MBA members, will work throughout the 2019-20 year to engage a more diverse and representative group of attorneys for leadership and section involvement.

“I know we won’t be tackling these important issues alone, because our court leaders share our concerns and are equally committed to improving well-being and diversity in the judiciary,” Morrissey said.

During her yearly update, Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey recounted a recent visit to the Legacy Museum in Alabama, where she and other judges were reminded of the horrors of slavery in America. This experience, she said, left her with a range of emotions and with added motivation to further the Trial Court’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Carey listed several such programs held over the last year, including diversity trainings and workshops for judges and court staff, the District Court’s second annual Judicial Conference on Race and Ethnic Fairness, and a cultural competency training in the Middlesex County Juvenile Court.

"If we really want our justice system to be true to the words of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Rights, we must walk the walk, talk the talk . . . and stand up," Carey said.

Trial Court Administrator Jonathan S. Williams concluded the State of the Judiciary with an overview of the court’s most pressing capital needs, most of which center on technology infrastructure and staffing. The Trial Court’s IT bond request, Williams said, seeks $162 million in funding for technology projects, headlined by an effort to equip all courthouses with Wi-Fi.

“We hope we can count on the Bar’s support, as we seek the resources outlined in this bond bill,” Williams said.

Click here to view photos from the 2019 State of the Judiciary Address.