Gants unveils court initiatives at Bench-Bar Symposium

Issue November 2014 By Anna Sims

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants outlined a four-point agenda to improve the state's justice system and stressed the importance of cooperation in his first State of the Judiciary address on Oct. 16, at the Massachusetts Bar Association's Annual Bench-Bar Symposium.

"We in the judiciary increasingly are recognizing that our role is not only to do justice, but to solve problems," Gants said. "Once we recognize that every court is a problem-solving court, we see that the problems that come to us cannot effectively be solved without the funding and legislation that only the legislature can provide, without the drug and mental health treatment programs that only the executive branch can establish and administer, and without the legal advocacy that only the bar can offer."

Addressing the crowd of lawyers, judges, legislators, clerks and court staff at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, Gants called for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing in drug offenses. Noting that such punishments have had a "disparate impact" on minorities, the chief justice advocated for individualized, evidence-based sentencing "that will not only punish and deter, but also minimize the risk of recidivism by treating the root of the problem behind many drug offenses - the problem of addiction."

Gants also challenged the courts and bar to "compete with private arbitration" by developing more litigation options for civil court cases "to ensure that our courts … continue to create the common law that is the legal infrastructure of our civil society." He also announced plans to release information sheets that will help self-represented litigants know how and where to access legal assistance.

Gants concluded his remarks by pledging his commitment to voir dire and thanking the Supreme Judicial Court Committee, which includes former MBA President Douglas K. Sheff.

"By February 2015, when the new statute takes effect, there will be a provisional Superior Court standing order that will establish protocols for attorney voir dire, and the Superior Court, hand in glove with the committee, will learn from our experience with the provisional standing order before issuing a more permanent one," he said. "We will make attorney voir dire work."

Collaboration on display

MBA President Marsha V. Kazarosian delivered opening remarks at the Bench-Bar Symposium, which celebrated the strong and long-standing collaboration between lawyers and judges, as well as legislators and others who work closely with the legal community. "This is truly a community of people used to working toward common goals, and achieving those goals. And each time I have the honor of speaking to our legal and legislative community, I am reminded of the humbling power of cooperation and collaboration," she said.

Kazarosian singled out the passage of voir dire as a recent example of unity. "Voir dire is a goal that the MBA and the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys have worked toward for a very long time, and we are extraordinarily grateful to Gov. [Deval] Patrick and our legislative leaders, as well as our partners in the judiciary, for recognizing its worth as an incomparable tool in rooting out hidden bias."

Looking ahead, the MBA president noted that "although we have certainly moved mountains together, there are still more mountains to move," citing the MBA's goal of higher salaries for assistant district attorneys, public defenders and bar advocates. Kazarosian noted she had accepted an appointment by Patrick to serve on his Commission to Study the Compensation of ADAs and CPCS attorneys.

"I look forward to continuing down that road paved by the MBA's Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Salaries," Kazarosian said. "Without appropriate funding for a balanced system of criminal justice that provides for the rights and securities afforded to us all by our constitutions, we are not meeting our obligation to provide true access to justice for those who need it the most."

Before turning over the podium for Gants' first State of the Judiciary address, Kazarosian reiterated that one of the greatest benefits about the MBA was the "terrific rapport" it shares with the judiciary, including Gants.

"Whether he is chairing commissions or task forces to ensure legal services for the underrepresented … or [rushing] back across the state after a long and difficult day to attend an evening reception because he promised he would be there," Kazarosian said, "Justice Ralph Gants is the respected and admired voice of our judiciary, the leader of our legal community and a really nice guy."

Serving the people

Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula M. Carey and Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence also spoke at the symposium. Spence praised the trial court administration's organizational and technological advances, including an attorney's portal being piloted in Bristol County.

"The pilot allows lawyers to go online to view their cases, including all docket and event information. We expect to expand it across the state and across trial court departments," Spence said. "Soon we also expect to offer, for a small fee, an application that pushes information on scheduled events to attorneys' electronic devices."

Carey celebrated the state's addition of nine new specialty courts - five drug courts, two mental health courts and two veterans' treatment courts - and discussed efforts to implement domestic violence legislation passed this year.

She concluded her remarks by praising the bar for helping the courts serve the people of Massachusetts.

"[T]he trial court would not have been able to effectively deliver justice over the five years of the fiscal crisis without the help and commitment of the bar," Carey said, adding: "As we move forward, we are keeping the needs of the bar in the forefront." 

Jason Scally contributed to this story.