Special task force on courts recommends major changes

Issue December 2003

A major report just released by the MBA's Court Study Task Force recommends significant changes in the administration, management and budgeting of the commonwealth's courts in order to improve citizens' access to justice and the public's confidence in the state's judicial system.

The report was delivered by Task Force co-chairs Warren Fitzgerald and Francis T. Talty at the Nov. 13 meeting of the MBA House of Delegates.

Stating that, "we believe that it is imperative that steps be taken to improve the condition of the Massachusetts court system," the MBA Court Study Task Force recommends three changes in the Massachusetts court system: providing the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) with authority over the administration of the Trial Court and changing the authority of the Chief Justice for Administration and Management; providing the Judiciary with greater control over its budget; and creating an Advisory Board to assist the SJC in its administrative duties. The report terms these three initiatives as "the most pressing needs of the courts."

The MBA Court Study Task Force is made up of leading experts from the state's judiciary, legal profession and education institutions. Members include:

•  Warren Fitzgerald, Esq., Co-Chair and MBA Vice President; Meehan, Black Boyle & Fitzgerald, Boston

•  Francis T. Talty, Esq., Co-Chair; Talty & Talty, PC, Lowell

•  Hon. Herbert P. Wilkins, Chief Justice (ret.), Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

•  Ronald A. Cass, Dean, Boston University School of Law

•  Martha Coakley, District Attorney, Middlesex County

•  Florence R. Rubin, court-reform advocate, Newton

•  Richard C. Van Nostrand, Esq., MBA President; Mirick O'Connell DeMallie & Lougee, Worcester

•  Joseph P.J. Vrabel, Esq., MBA Immediate Past President; Vice President and General Counsel, Capital Rick Management, Inc., Framingham

•  Veronica Fenton, Esq., Lenox

•  Patricia A. Wynn, Esq., Committee for Public Counsel Services, Boston

•  Leo V. Boyle, Esq., MBA Past President; Meehan, Black Boyle & Fitzgerald, Boston

•  Martin Healy, Esq., MBA General Counsel.

The Court Study Task Force, which was appointed in January 2003 by former MBA President Joseph Vrabel, began its work by reviewing the reports of most committees that have analyzed the Massachusetts court system during the past 30 years. These included: "Res Gestae" (MBA Committee on Court Reform) (1976); "Report on the State of the Massachusetts Courts" (Cox Commission) (1976); "Conference Report: Court Reorganization: Three Years and Counting"(Massachusetts Council for Public Justice) (1982); "Agenda 90: Modernizing the Judiciary" (Massachusetts Senate Committee on Ways and Means) (1987); " Justice Endangered: Management Report on Massachusetts Courts" (Harbridge House Report) (1991); "A Declaration of Independence: Reaffirming the Autonomy of the Third Branch"(Dolan Report) ( 2002); and "Report to Chief Justice Marshall" (Monan Report) (2003).

The three major changes in the Massachusetts court system recommended by the Court Study Task Force are:

•  The Supreme Judicial Court should be established as the administrative head of the Trial Court and the administrative structure of the Trial Court should be modified. To that end, it recommended that the administrative structure of the Trial Court should be modified; the Supreme Judicial Court should be provided with administrative authority; and a position of Court Administrator should be created.

•  The Judiciary should be granted greater control over its budget.

•  An Advisory Board should be created to assist the Supreme Judicial Court in its administrative role.

In addition to the three major initiatives, the Court Study Task Force identified nine recommendations from the MBA's landmark 1991 Harbridge House Report that it deemed still relevant in light of recent changes in the Massachusetts court system. They are:

•  The Trial Court should consist of a single unified court.

•  The Chief Justice of the SJC should act as Chief Executive of the Trial Court.

•  An Administrative Board, comprised on judicial and non-judicial members should oversee and review the administration of the Trial Court and advise the Chief Justice on administrative matters.

•  The Trial Court should have a single administrative structure.

•  The Trial Court should be managed by a professional Court Administrator.

•  A Chief Administrative Justice should be appointed by the Chief Justice of the SJC.

•  The authority of the Court Administrator should be delegated within each court to local Trial Court Administrators.

•  Court Clerks should be appointed by the Court Administrator.

•  The funding for the courts should be provided by a budget with four subcategories.

Officers and leaders of the MBA will use the recommendations of the Court Study Task Force in their discussions with members of the Massachusetts legislature about the future of the commonwealth's courts and in the association's ongoing work with the SJC as it explores options for improvements to the administration and management of the courts.

In addition, various sections of the MBA will be encouraged to make further specific recommendations to the House of Delegates regarding court administration and management and issues of access to justice throughout the commonwealth.

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