Symposium features updates from Chief Justice Ireland, fresh perspective from new trial court administrator

Issue November 2012 By Laura Schreier

In his second Annual Address to the Legal Community, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland made early use of the word "optimism," a theme shared by other speakers at the Massachusetts Bar Association's Bench-Bar Symposium, even as they outlined some challenges that face the judiciary.

MBA President Robert L. Holloway Jr. called the assembled crowd to order in the Great Hall of the John Adams Courthouse in Boston on Oct. 17. Holloway warmly welcomed the legal community, greeting many judges by name. He introduced the topic of court reform - a dominant theme of the evening - by welcoming Leo V. Boyle to the stage.

Boyle, an MBA past president and former Court Management Advisory Board member, brought context to the topic by discussing its 40-year history. Briefly charting its progress from 1976 through 2011, Boyle said reports and advisory committees had long urged the courts to appoint the kind of administrator Massachusetts now has. And in creating that position, the state "had history on its side."

In Ireland's speech, the chief justice gave updates on other areas of progress for the judiciary. He began, as last year, with budget talk. However, the news was better this time around.

First, Gov. Deval Patrick had approved a supplemental budget for the judiciary, which had been proposed by the House under Speaker Robert DeLeo. So this year, although the budget is still tight, the judiciary can start to reverse the downward trend on personnel.

"We are hopeful that the worst is behind us, and that we can start the process of addressing critical staffing needs for our court," Ireland said to the crowd of nearly 150.

Ireland came to his first Annual Address last year with three major areas of focus, and used his second address to give a progress report and describe how the judiciary would build on its efforts thus far. Those areas include building bridges with key court constituencies; broadening access to justice by making courts more responsive; and educating the public, particularly youth, about the role of the judicial system.

Ireland said he's been working hard to get to know individuals in the legislative and executive branches, and added that his colleagues in the judiciary have also been actively reaching out to the two other branches of government. He thanked the MBA for its support of court funding as well.

In one example of outreach to the other branches, Ireland described how the judiciary sponsored its first education and training program for legislative staff. There, staff received information that enabled them to better answer constituents' frequently asked questions on the court system. Legislative leaders helped plan the event and said it was a positive experience, Ireland reported, and he added that he hoped to repeat the program in the future.

As for the second of his priorities, Ireland is looking to broaden access to justice by making courts more responsive to the public. To that end, the Access to Justice Commission and the Trial Court's Access to Justice Initiative "are going full steam," he said. The Access to Justice Initiative is improving language access through grant awards, and both groups are developing programs and using technology to make the courts more user-friendly.

Ireland's third priority "stems from my prior experience as a juvenile court judge, and the recognition that our young people are the next generation of citizens and leaders," he said.

Ireland championed the Judicial Youth Corps (JYC) in particular, which was founded more than 20 years ago by then-Chief Justice Paul J. Liacos. More than 700 teenagers have participated, working in the court system and learning about it from the inside.

Three volunteers in the audience, each of whom has been working with students for more than 20 years, received special recognition: Catherine DeSimone, first assistant clerk of the Suffolk Superior Court Criminal Clerk's Office; Robert Lewis, clerk-magistrate of the Boston Housing Court; and Anthony Owens, clerk-magistrate of the Dorchester District Court.

Ireland then introduced a JYC alumna, Kenia Seoane Lopez, who worked in the program in 1991 and was recently appointed magistrate judge of the District of Columbia Superior Court.

Lopez took the podium and shared a funny, moving account of how the JYC dramatically changed the course of her life. An average inner city high school student who wasn't above cutting class once in a while, she "carried more makeup in my bag than actual books." But a teacher who saw her potential referred her to the JYC. Lopez signed up, mostly for the stipend she would receive, but got much more out of the experience. It gave her a sense of accomplishment, and she saw firsthand how many people in the court system needed help.

Inspired to try harder and dream bigger, she finished her senior year of high school, went on to Northeastern University and eventually law school.

"You can see what a profound effect this little program had on my life," she told the crowd. She thanked members of the legal community as well as her parents, Cuban immigrants who had wanted a better life for their children and done the hard work to make it happen.

Following Lopez's remarks, Ireland introduced Trial Court Administrator Lewis H. "Harry" Spence, who shared experiences from his first sixth months in the newly-created position. In that time, Spence has visited the staff of well over 20 courts. He told the audience that he believed the judiciary's staffing levels would remain contracted for the foreseeable future, as staff members struggle furiously to maintain services with fewer bodies. But there are opportunities here as well, he said - for instituting new governance, new hiring policies and better, merit-based promotions.

Spence said he has cause for optimism. Firstly, the appetite for change is greater than he'd assumed. And secondly, the staff members themselves are extremely competent.

However, Spence noted that the arc of career development is very limited for those people. In some courthouses, the only way anyone can move up is if the person ahead of them dies or retires, he said. "Personnel need to be able to move across the system with more dynamism," Spence said.

Also, he explained that courts must integrate back-office procedures to reduce overhead. "Specialized courts are necessary, but as it stands now each has its own back-office functions, which renders many processes redundant," he said. New performance appraisal methods are on their way, he added, and the courts must also increase their use of technology, such as centralized billing, internet payments, and e-filing, to improve the system.

The formal speaking program gave way to a networking reception help in the conference room at the courthouse.