HOD passes Guantanamo resolution, debates Family Law changes

Issue January 2006

The Massachusetts Bar Association 2005-06 House of Delegates convened for the second time on Nov. 17 in Western Massachusetts, a short distance from the nation’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. The full agenda highlighted important updates, distinguished guest speakers and fruitful debates related to motions brought to the floor by the Family Law and Criminal Law Section Councils.

MBA President Warren Fitzgerald brought the meeting to order in the main ballroom of the Springfield Marriott by introducing Chief Judge William G. Young. Young delivered a brief but poignant address, including a report on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Young, who is retiring Jan. 1, 2006, spoke highly of his successor, Judge Mark L. Wolf, describing him as an “unexcelled leader for our court.” Aside from providing the status of the case composition of the court, he spoke to the heavy caseload for each judge as it reaches 1,000 cases per judge, a particularly high number when compared to districts across the nation.

“The U.S. District Court in Massachusetts is exceptional,” said Young. “I believe we would all be hard-pressed to find a more collegial, professional and independent group as we enjoy here.”

Young then explained that the average bench hours reported by active Massachusetts District Court judges in 2004 was 610, a total ranking “first or second” in the nation among judges in courts with six or more judges presiding. “We are simply breaking the traditional mindset of what a trial court is.”

Young followed his remarks by fielding questions from the delegates. Topics addressed include the value of eDiscovery, the pacer system and other measures intended to improve efficiency of the trial court system.

Officers provide timely reports
Following Young’s well-received remarks, Fitzgerald presented the president’s report. Fitzgerald announced three new committees established since he took office in September. Established to respond to criticisms of Supreme Court judges and other public attacks on the judiciary, the Judicial Independence Committee has been formed with Ed P. Ryan Jr. serving as its chair. The Lawyers in Transition Committee, led by MBA Secretary Denise Squillante, is assessing ways in which to keep attorneys involved and active in the profession despite a hiatus from practice due to lifestyle changes, such as starting a family. Finally, an ad hoc committee has been established and MBA President-Elect Mark Mason will be leading its charge to explore how the MBA can be more supportive to the Young Lawyers division of the association.

As part of his president-elect’s report, Mason welcomed the group to his home city of Springfield and shared his enthusiasm for the initiation of the ad hoc committee. David W. White-Lief and Squillante followed Mason’s report to deliver the treasurer and secretary reports.

General counsel delivers legislative debrief
Martin Healy, MBA general counsel, kept the group abreast of recent legislation in which he and other members of the MBA have been aggressively involved. Healy first clarified the reality of “end of the session.” He informed the group that the Legislature is near completing only the first of its two-year session and continues to meet on an informal basis. Healy explained that existing bills will carry over to the second year of the Legislature’s session when formal meetings officially resume on Jan. 4, 2006.

Healy then debriefed colleagues on the move of the Legislature to defeat a proposal by Gov. Mitt Romney for a “fool-proof” death penalty. “The MBA remains extremely active in the fight against reinstatement of the death penalty in Massachusetts,” said Healy, who mentioned that MBA past President Kathleen M. O’Donnell testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on the governor’s bill last spring.

Also, on the topic of sentencing guidelines, Healy reported that the Joint Committee on the Judiciary was to hold a hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 22. MBA Criminal Law Section Council Chair Lee Gartenberg was to testify on the legislation as drafted by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission with the addition of a post-incarceration supervision proposal. “As you may remember, this body voted to support the post-incarceration supervision proposal drafted by our Task Force on Sentencing Guidelines. The MBA’s proposal was subsequently included in the sentencing guidelines legislation passed by the House of Representatives in 2001,” added Healy.

Healy’s final legislative update was that the Senate passed a supplemental budget on Nov. 15 that included a pay increase for Massachusetts judges. The salary of an associate justice in the trial court will increase from $112,000 to about $130,000.

In addition, as part of his interim role as executive director, Healy proudly reported that the MBA has recently appointed two new members to its senior staff. Mark Doherty, director of Finance and Administration, and Tricia Oliver, director of media and communications, recently began their posts at the Boston office. (The MBA also hired Executive Director Marilyn J. Wellington on Dec. 1. See story on page one.)

Motion passed to protect detainees’ rights
Following Healy’s legislative update, the delegates heard from Region Four delegate Mark Berson, who presented the MBA resolution in response to a recent ruling from the Supreme Court. The legislation, by the viewpoint of the association, poses a “threat to the rule of law” as imposed to the rights of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. In short, the resolution proposed for the U.S. Attorney General to support the Rule of Law to provide for judicial review mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court and that Congress pass no laws to restrict such access. Gartenberg then insisted the group consider adopting a friendly amendment to the resolution. The amended resolution passed. As a result, Fitzgerald will share the terms of the resolution with the appropriate government officials. For more on the resolution, contact MBA Bar Liaison Patricia Plasse at (617) 338-0596.

A colorful prelude to adjournment
The House of Delegates then engaged in a lengthy debate over two resolutions related to the Family Law Section Council. The resolutions were championed by Pauline Quirion, Family Law Section Council chair, but were presented by Squillante with strong input on the floor by Veronica Fenton of the Family Law Section Council. As a way to provide context for the need for modifications to the court system’s handling of family law cases, Judge David G. Sacks, Probate and Family Court Hampden Division, was on hand to address the group.

The first resolution provided recommendations to the probate and family court child support guidelines and the second addressed revisions to the probate and family court time standards. The first resolution was met with opposition from a handful of delegates, including Hampshire County Bar Association President Beth Crawford. Crawford advocated to delay passing the resolution until the group had settled on the particular guidelines. However, the resolution ultimately passed with strong testimony from Squillante and Fenton. The second related resolution also passed. Both family law resolutions aim to move cases more efficiently through the judicial system while maintaining careful consideration to the needs of children and their families. For more information on the resolution, members may contact Plasse at (617) 338-0596.

The next MBA House of Delegates meeting will take place on Jan. 19 at Regis College in Weston.