Incoming CJAM ready to make changes to move court system forward

Issue July 2003 By Krista Zanin

After each trial, Superior Court Judge Robert A. Mulligan talks to the jurors, asking them what they thought of their experience. Inevitably, they tell him two things.

Judge Robert Mulligan
Photo by Krista Zanin
Superior Court Judge Robert A. Mulligan will become Chief Justice for Administration and Management of the Trial Court on Oct. 1.
Why has it taken so long for this case to come to trial? Then they praise the court officers for being professional and helpful.

In just three months, Mulligan will stop taking questions from jurors at the close of court cases as he takes the helm of the Trial Court, becoming Chief Justice for Administration and Management on Oct. 1.

But he will take with him the heart of jurors' messages: The speed at which justice is delivered needs drastic improvement, yet those who work in the system are courteous, talented and hard working.

Faced with what some have called the most critical time the judiciary has experienced, Mulligan, who has spent the past 23 years of his career as a judge, is eager to move the court system forward.

"I think there are certain things we can do to try and move the system forward, and I think you can stand on the sidelines and wring your hands and think about how you think things might work better or you can throw your hat into the ring and try to make an effort to change things," said Mulligan, 59, who also served as Chief Justice of the Superior Court from 1994-99.

Mulligan will replace current Chief Justice of Administration and Management Barbara A. Dortch-Okara, who the SJC did not reappoint. Dortch-Okara will return to the bench as a Superior Court judge.

A 'blueprint' for the court system
Acknowledging the court system likely will remain with a maintenance budget for at least the next few years, Mulligan said he doesn't foresee the ability to hire additional people or perhaps even replace people who have left. Still, Mulligan said fiscal constraints would not hamper his attempt to strengthen the court system.

And, though the challenge will be daunting, Mulligan said he's grateful that he has the March 2003 comprehensive report from the Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts to the SJC. The so-called Monan Report (named for panel chair, Boston College Chancellor J. Donald Monan, S.J.) will be a "call to action" and a "blueprint" for how he will proceed.

The issues, according to the Monan Report, are addressing a system in which "the impact of high-quality judicial decisions is undermined by high cost, slow action and poor service to the community." It recommends the court system commit to a new leadership style, create a culture of high performance and accountability and establish discipline in resource allocation.

But the report also recommends changes to the CJAM position by having the person holding the position report directly to the SJC. The report also recommends recrafting the role of chief administrator of courts to control the Administrative Office of the Courts. The person who fills that position, according to the report, doesn't necessarily have to be a sitting judge, but "must have a strong managerial background and be supported by a corps of talented professional managers."

Judge or CEO - who should be chief administrator?
Mulligan agrees the CJAM must be skilled and advised on top business practices to run an efficient court system. However, he believes a judge should hold the position, at least in the near future.

"I think right now the person who has the authority of CJAM should be a judge," he said. "It would be a very radical change to proceed from that model, which is the recognized model in the system, to a business-school type of CEO, if you will, running the judicial system."

And Mulligan is not convinced that if the now vacant Administrator of Courts position is filled, the applicant pool should be limited to business leaders.

"I don't want to, at this point, limit that position to someone coming in from the business sector - a banker, an executive," Mulligan said. "I think you have to look to a broad background in general, rather than just say a business background."

"I think it's a very important position to fill, but you want to get the right person in that position," Mulligan said.

Mulligan believes it's essential for the CJAM to be informed of the best business practices and strategies. One way to accomplish that, he said, is through an advisory committee comprised of business professionals, who could critique the system and make recommendations.

Mulligan believes in solving problems in a creative way, disallowing a resource shortage from preventing the accomplishment of a more expeditious delivery of justice.

"The Monan Commission was very specific in their statement that the quality of justice in Massachusetts is excellent," Mulligan said. "… It's the timeliness of the delivery, the expeditiousness and the costs associated with justice. I think there are certain things we can do in that area that do not require additional funding, additional employees."

Developing time standards
Among the first of Mulligan's ideas is developing time standards across the Trial Court. Such guidelines were developed for the Superior Court, and Mulligan believes those also could be individually tailored to other departments.

"There are no real goals or benchmarks for judges to look at," said Mulligan. "Now obviously a medical malpractice case in Superior Court is different than a driving-under-the-influence case in District Court or a care of protection petition in Juvenile Court or a custody case in Probate Court. But I think each court department can be involved …in developing its own time frames for the type of cases that particular department deals with."

Lobbying for the courts
Beyond developing new ideas, much of Mulligan's time will be occupied by lobbying efforts on Beacon Hill.

Mulligan praises the leadership, including Gov. Mitt Romney, Romney's chief legal counsel and former District Court Judge Daniel Winslow, Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and Speaker of the House Thomas M. Finneran.

"I am confident we will work together … to move the court system forward," Mulligan added.

And the time to move the system forward is now, Mulligan said, both because of the major issues facing the judiciary and the eagerness of employees - from clerks to judges - to improve the system.

"I really think the time is critical for the court system," Mulligan said. "As someone said to me, 'The courts are in peril.' I don't think it's that type of a crisis at this point. But I think there is an acknowledged sentiment that we have to do something and we have to do something urgently."

Mulligan said his 23 years of experience in the system, his great appreciation for those who work in the system, his ability to listen to anyone's ideas - from counter clerks to judges - and his willingness to change his mind if he hears a better idea will allow him to strengthen the court system.

"I see my role as the CJAM to serve the people, to help the people on the front lines to perform their jobs in a way which improves the delivery of justice to all the citizens who come to our courthouses seeking justice," Mulligan said.

And he's also placing his confidence in the people who work for the system.

"I feel this is a great privilege to serve in this position, to lead to represent all the employees in the system and to move forward and arrive at a system which is universally recognized as the finest state judicial system in the country," Mulligan said. "We have the talent. We have the dedicated employees. And we have the will to achieve that. And that's what I hope to achieve and I know we can do it."