The State of the Judiciary and Its Connection to the Bar

Late last week, the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court Ralph Gants appeared before an audience of representatives from across the legal community to give his inaugural State of the Judiciary address. Along with Chief Justice of the Trial Court Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, Chief Justice Gants outlined his hopes for the courts, the legal profession, and the justice system in our Commonwealth.

I want to highlight a couple of the initiatives that Chief Justice Gants announced and explain what the bar has done – and can do in the future – to further them.  Many of these initiatives are just as important to the BBA’s mission, and our position as members of the bar, as they are to the courts.

For example, Chief Justice Gants took on the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing. For nearly 20 years, the BBA has opposed mandatory minimum sentencing, issuing a resolution to that effect in 1990, followed by a task force report called The Crisis in Corrections and Sentencing in Massachusetts a year later. The BBA also sponsored a bill that helped to create the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. Over the years, we have publicly testified in support of sentencing reform and have studied related topics ranging from parole practices to CORI reform.

This is an issue that continues to be a BBA priority, and as Chief Justice Gants noted in his remarks, there is ever-increasing public support for our position. We know that strict sentencing disproportionately affects minority groups, and as Chief Justice Gants cited, mandatory minimum sentencing does not take into account the specific facts of each case – which can be especially problematic given the large proportion of drug-related cases in which addiction is a mitigating factor. The specialty court sessions of the Trial Court, including the drug court and veterans’ court, provide a greater focus on the role and the treatment of substance addiction and are expanding rapidly.  We need to continue to support the courts’ efforts in addressing these difficult and complex issues by continuing our advocacy for specialty courts.

We also want to thank Chief Justice Gants for his reference to our Task Force Report on civil legal aid, which we released the day before his speech. He urged the legislature to act on our recommendations for increased funding for civil legal aid, in line with the courts’ continuing focus on ensuring access to justice.

In his speech, Chief Justice Gants indicated that the judiciary’s initiatives could not be successful without the support of the executive and legislative branches and the bar.  The BBA has a long tradition of working with the judiciary on matters of mutual interest.  As one example of the bench and the bar working together on an access to justice project, this summer, we saw the first court service center in Boston open at the Brooke Courthouse. An initiative of the court, our most recent Public Interest Leadership class collaborated with the court staff to assist with some of the set-up, materials, and volunteer staffing associated with the initial phases of opening the center, which provides a workspace area and guidance to self-represented litigants who come to the court and don’t know where to start. Now, according to Chief Justice Gants, judges are wondering how they ever lived without the court service centers that exist in Boston and Greenfield, and there are plans to open new service centers in courts across the Commonwealth.

It is in this spirit that I encourage all attorneys to continue to advocate for the courts and their goals, as it gives us the opportunity to strengthen this partnership. Already, Chief Justice Gants has recommended numerous working groups that include members of the bar, showing that our input is of high value to the courts. We can also make sure to attend open court events, such as an upcoming open house at the Brooke Courthouse Court Service Center on October 30th, as well as bench-bar symposiums to hear our judges’ perspectives on matters of mutual importance and to provide feedback. Through collaboration and thoughtful discourse across all parts of the legal community, we can see these critical shared goals come to fruition.