Chief Justice Marshall lauds progress of court system, announces new initiatives in Annual Address to the Legal Community

Issue November 2007 By Bill Archambeault

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall extolled the progress made in Massachusetts courts over the last year, delivering her Annual Address to the Legal Community.
Her report on the state of the courts was delivered in the John Adams Courthouse at the start of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Second Annual Bench-Bar Symposium on Oct. 11.

In his introduction of Marshall, MBA President David W. White Jr. said, “It’s an honor to be part of the Massachusetts judicial community under Chief Justice Margaret Marshall,” calling her leadership as the voice of the judiciary “an unwavering commitment to making the Massachusetts judiciary a national model.”

In her address, Marshall thanked the MBA for its support.

“This bar association has always been one of the judiciary’s most stalwart partners in the hard work of advancing justice for all,” she said, adding that was happy to learn that the MBA, in partnership with the Boston Bar Association, had received the Harrison Tweed Award at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting on Aug. 10. The award recognized the MBA and BBA’s ongoing commitment to the funding and provision of quality legal services to the poor in Massachusetts in both criminal and civil matters.

“It is an honor well-deserved,” Marshall said. “I have admired your unfailing ability to focus on new opportunities for public service and service to the profession. This association leads with creativity and foresight. Along the way, you have developed a thriving, diverse, dynamic institutional structure to propel your interrelated goals of justice and professional excellence. You have, in short, created and followed an exemplary business model.”

Marshall then explained how the Massachusetts court system has attempted to adopt good business models as a way of improving the delivery of justice.

“Focus, disciplined management, efficiency, responsiveness. The formula for a successful law practice and a well-run nonprofit has many of the same ingredients as a well-functioning court system,” she said.

In working toward those goals, Marshall said that making “significant progress” in court management is critical.

“No matter whom you represent, you know that it matters, it really matters, whether a case moves smoothly through the court system or is ensnared in endless infuriating delays,” she said. “An unfinished transcript. A lost file. A poorly managed docket. An endless round of continuances. Such inefficiencies draw a heavy toll on a victim’s peace of mind, on the cash flow of a small business, on the manageability of your own caseload. And ultimately, on the public’s perception of its government.”

Marshall announced that the progress made with the roll-out of its computer-based management system, MassCourts, “is significant,” but only part of the technological and operating improvements being made in the Massachusetts court system.

“This has been a year of much progress on the road to excellence,” she said, noting that the blue-ribbon panel of outside management experts to evaluate the state’s courts has led to far-reaching changes. “First, we developed a blueprint for change,” she said. “Now, that blueprint is becoming a concrete edifice.”

First, she said, the Court Management Advisory Board has found “great accomplishment and progress” in establishing, reporting and analyzing data on court performance.
Second, she said, time standards are now in place in every Trial Court department for both civil and criminal cases.

“We have established objective goals to measure the extent to which the flow of cases is consistent with the time standards,” she said. “We are collecting hard data and measuring progress toward those goals.”

As examples of that progress, Marshall noted:

• The Trial Court exceeded its clearance rate goal of 110 percent with an average rate of 116 percent;
• The Trial Court exceeded its goal for reducing old cases by 33 percent with a 50.6 percent reduction.
• Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert J. Mulligan is adding a new metric this year to measure constituent satisfaction with the courts.

Third, she said, the Trial Court has launched its MassCourts Lite computer system in most of its departments, processing information much more quickly than before and allowing it to be shared easily.

“By allowing faster, more accurate information sharing in criminal cases throughout the courts and their constituent agencies, MassCourts is an important public safety initiative,” she said.

In other technological-related improvements, Marshall noted that SJC briefs are now being scanned and will be linked to the webcast of oral arguments, a service that was introduced in 2005.

“This means that the lawyer in Greenfield, the litigant in Cleveland or the journalist in Barnstable are the same short mouse-click away from these materials, as are those who are close to the courthouse,” she said.

In addition to recently launching a redesigned SJC Web site, Marshall promised, “We will continue to explore the power of information technologies to make our courts more accessible and transparent for all.”

Finally, Marshall expressed her satisfaction at attorneys’ participation in judicial evaluations. She estimated that more than 82,000 individual judicial evaluations have been completed by attorneys over the last several years, and expects that two full rounds of evaluations will be completed by the summer of 2008.

“This has been a tremendous opportunity for judges to access information on how they are perceived by those who appear before them,” she said. “It has also provided data that is valuable to the leaders of the judicial branch on the performance of the judges for whom they are responsible.”
Marshall said that the “great majority” of those evaluated are viewed as doing a good job, with only a small percentage needing improvement. And, she added, “To me, a more significant development is that the trends are in the right direction, with the already high number of positive evaluations actually increasing from the first to the second round.”

Marshall called the leaders and members of the MBA a “key to our success.”

“You have carefully documented the state of our courts. You have respectfully, but firmly, insisted that we should do better. You have helped build the healthy momentum for change we see today. It has not always been easy. And I recognize that some changes have been more difficult than others to absorb.

“The top-to-bottom transformation of our judicial administration is at times challenging,” she said.

“But I commit to this: We will continue to invite you to the table in planning, implementing and assessing our reform efforts in the courts. We will listen to your concerns. We will work with you in partnership, as we have consistently tried to do.”

In concluding, Marshall announced two new joint ventures:

• The creation of a committee on plain English jury instructions with the MBA. “Language should not be a barrier to justice. This is a most worthwhile initiative,” she said.
• A series of bench-bar discussions on case management and other reforms, to be held regionally across the state, beginning in 2008.

“This has been a year of much progress on the road to excellence,” she said. “But when ‘doing justice’ is your business, progress can be shifting and contingent. The goalposts change with society’s changing needs. But move forward we must.”