A year in, Connolly embraces change as District Court CJ

Issue November 2005 By Bill Archambeault

It's been a little more than a year since District Court Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly replaced Chief Justice Samuel E. Zoll, who retired after spending 28 years in the post.

In that time, Connolly has helped implement court reforms called for by the Monan Report and overseen by Chief Justice for Administration & Management Robert A. Mulligan. She's visited every one of the 62 district courts at least once, and she's even presided in Edgartown and Quincy.

"Chief Justice Zoll left an extraordinary legacy," Connolly said. "I really saw the initial challenge as being one of honoring a legacy and building on it, but also taking a look at the areas that could be improved."

She says she's committed to implementing the changes called for in the Monan Report, such as improving case flow management, allocating resources more fairly, installing needed computer systems and establishing metrics that individual courts will be judged on.

"It's a cultural change for the Trial Court," she said.

Massachusetts Bar Association General Counsel Martin W. Healy described Connolly as the right person to guide the sweeping changes being made at the District Court.

"Chief Justice Connolly is a talented leader who not only has tremendous credibility and clout internally with her fellow jurists, but also externally with members of the Legislature and the bar," Healy said. "This allows her to accomplish great tasks in short periods of time."

It's been a busy year, with some 700,000 items filed in the state's district courts.

"I believe it to my core - the District Court is the gateway to justice for the vast majority of people who use the court system," Connolly said. "We have an opportunity and a responsibility to affect how people perceive justice in Massachusetts."

But in order to improve the quality of service people using the courts receive, the courts need improvement, from staffing to equipment to facilities to management. And Connolly, who started her five-year appointment on June 21, 2004, has started by improving communication with the courts so that they know what to expect and what is expected of them, hiring to match workloads, using creative management methods to catch up on backlogs and installing the computer systems needed to do the work efficiently.

"We're here to support our 62 courts," she said. "Our role is to provide support to help them get their job done."

Change has been the overriding theme since the Monan Report delivered the blueprint for improving the courts, and Connolly said she's been impressed with how much has happened since then.

"I think there's been a sea change in the management of the courts in the last two years," she said. "I think an extraordinary amount has happened in just two years, and I think Chief Justice Mulligan deserves credit for that."

Connolly says she believes that district court judges appreciate that she's explaining what the courts do well and what needs improvement. And that's important, she says, because the changes that are making the state's justice system more transparent are not going to go away.

"Case flow management has to become part of the culture of the District Court, and that's going to take years and years to become ingrained in the culture," she said.

In February, 60 people were hired to meet staffing needs, and none too soon. The civil case scheduling was so far behind at one district court that Connolly temporarily shifted some of the work to other courts just to help it catch up.

Most of the progress so far has been made on the civil side, particularly by establishing the metrics against which the courts can be measured. But more work needs to be done on the criminal side, she said, including installing the MassCourts computer system. The computer system will first be installed as a pilot program in Ayer District Court next month.

Connolly and her staff recently finished evaluating their first year overseeing the District Court department and found two problems internally, she said.

"They said that, one, I had too many priorities in the first year, and that, two, my memos were too long," Connolly said, kiddingly.

Philip J. McCue, director of district court operations, served as first assistant clerk in Dedham from 1994 through 2004 under Connolly. He credits her with making sure that each of the courts knows that it has the support of her office.

"She's a tremendous leader, a great motivator and a great communicator," McCue said. "Those are her three main strengths, and I saw all of those things in Dedham."

Connolly, who had served as acting first justice in Charlestown District Court and was first justice of the Dedham District Court before her appointment as chief justice, has tried to find the time to preside over a courtroom occasionally, as much for her own satisfaction as to remain connected to the people she now oversees. She sat in Edgartown District Court one day in July and in Quincy District Court last fall.

"I don't ever want to lose touch with what our judges do on a daily basis," Connolly said. "I do miss it. I especially miss presiding over jury trials."

Watching the seven or eight people impaneled as jurors come together over the course of a trial, sometimes reluctantly, is a rewarding experience, she said.

"I think we all miss court," McCue said. "Court is what this job is all about, and yet, we're not in court. You shouldn't be in this job unless you miss being in court, and I think she does miss being in court."