Marshall lauds Massachusetts courts as a national model but cites need for continued cooperation, innovation

Issue January 2007 By Bill Archambeault

In her "Annual Address to the Legal Community," Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall lauded the progress the state’s courts are making while calling for continuing cooperation in improving the court system.

"Since I became chief justice seven years ago, excellence sustained by collaboration has been my stated objective," Marshall told roughly 250 people in the audience for the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Bench-Bar Symposium, which was held Nov. 30 at the John Adams Courthouse.

Marshall explained that the Visiting Committee on Management in the Courts, better known as the Monan Committee, laid out a comprehensive "road map" for administrative and managerial reforms in the Massachusetts court system.

"Where are we on the road map? We have, in fact, traveled a remarkable distance. We have done so, as, day in and day out, superb substantive justice continues to be delivered in the commonwealth," she said.

Since the 2003 Monan Committee report, "We have implemented national models for measuring and improving the expeditious processing of all cases. From every courthouse, every session, civil and criminal, data is now systematically collected, reviewed and analyzed on four metrics: clearance rates, time to disposition, age of pending cases, and trial date certainty," Marshall said. "Massachusetts is in the vanguard of a growing national movement to bring modern systems of management and accountability to our court system."

"We have set goals — ambitious goals — to improve the timely and expeditious disposition of cases and to measure progress on these goals objectively. I look forward to publishing our first report of system-wide court performances in 2007."

Recent accomplishments and initiatives underway or coming in 2007 include:

• In the appellate courts, a working group of judges, court officials, court reporters and appellate attorneys has developed a program to eliminate the backlog of transcript preparation. In 2007, she said, time standards would be implemented for transcript preparation in all courts.

• An emphasis on the disposition of cases involving children, including using federal funds from the Court Improvement Program to pay for a new handbook for parents in child welfare cases to help them understand the judicial process. Also, National Adoption Day was celebrated with the adoption of 200 foster children throughout the state.

• The recent launch of the limited assistance representation pilot program in the Suffolk and Hampden Divisions of the Probate and Family Court. Recognizing that clients representing themselves often need limited legal advice, the program allows attorneys and clients to decide what issues or hearings the attorney will handle instead of handling every aspect of the case. Already, 300 attorneys have attended information sessions across the state to qualify to represent clients on a limited basis.

"The pilot project has been underway for a few short weeks. The response has been overwhelming and positive," Marshall said. "Massachusetts is emerging as a national leader in addressing the challenges presented by self-represented litigants."

• Volunteer attorneys have begun a "Lawyer-For-A-Day" program helping litigants in the Northeast Division of the Housing Court in Lawrence.

• The Trial Court’s Judicial Institute recently published a handbook providing critical legal information for people representing themselves, and copies were sent to every civil clerk’s office and every law library in the state. It is also available online.

• Improvements in the summonsing of jurors and the experience of jurors at trial are a national model, Marshall said, noting that a study in the American Bar Association’s The Judge’s Journal praised the Massachusetts court system for "the most comprehensive attempt to remedy the financial hardship and inconvenience associated with jury duty." The Supreme Judicial Court, the Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan and all of the Trial Court chief justices have approved, in principle, the MBA’s proposal to develop "plain English" jury instructions.

• The Advisory Committee on Massachusetts Evidence Law was established over the summer to compile existing Massachusetts evidence law into a single document.

• The American Bar Association’s Model Rule 5.5 was adopted as part of the Rules of Professional Conduct. The change, which governs how a lawyer may provide legal services in Massachusetts without being licensed here, becomes effective Jan. 1, 2007.

• The court system is planning on collaborating with the MBA on President Mark D Mason’s "Civics in Education" program. The SJC, which already hosts programs for high school teachers about John Adams, the Massachusetts Constitution, and its influence on the U.S. Constitution, is planning a similar program for elementary school teachers.

"There is evidence of improvement and energy everywhere," Marshall said. "Some goals are new, others are of longstanding concern," she said, noting that the fight to increase the pay of judges and clerks finally yielded some success in 2006.

Security continues to be an issue, however, she said. "Our security needs have not been fully met, and I look forward to working with the Legislature and the governor to secure the funds we need so that all who come to our courthouses may do so in safety."

Recent improvements in the Massachusetts court system should be appreciated, she said, but the need for further improvement demands innovation and cooperation from the state’s legal community.

"We are grappling seriously with the challenge of administrative modernization," she said. "We learn from administrative innovations of other states and draw on the expertise of the National Center for State Courts. We also note with concern national developments that have spurred this bar association to focus this afternoon’s panel on protecting the independence of the judiciary."