Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall told attendees at the closing luncheon of the MBA's Annual Conference 2006 that tremendous progress has been made, but singled out access to justice and court salaries as two areas of concern.
Marshall told the 250 people in the audience that the Massachusetts court system has made a number of significant improvements in the last several years, but that the salaries of judges and court personnel, whose salaries are linked to judges' pay, still lagged far behind what is "fair."
"The movement forward is palpable in countless ways, and in countless areas," she said. "But there is one topic I had hoped I would not have to raise again this year: judicial salaries. We cannot continue to attract the best and brightest lawyers to serve as judges unless the compensation they receive keeps pace, at a minimum, with the rising financial demands that confront us all."
She added that mortgages, college tuition and other everyday expenses have risen while judicial salaries have remained flat.
"Today, members of the Legislature likely do not see themselves as Ôguardians' of judges' families," she said. "But our hard-working, talented judges do deserve fair compensation for the important work they do every day. I ask you to continue to assist us toward that end."
While the Legislature is working on a plan that would spend $42 million more on pay raises for judges and court clerks, there is opposition. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey blasted the proposal as "reckless," denouncing it last month as people were meeting the deadline for filing their taxes. Healey said it would be more appropriate to return the money to taxpayers instead.
Marshall also announced a new effort that should make it easier for litigants who represent themselves to maneuver through the courts. She announced the formation of a steering committee on self-represented litigants, which will be chaired by Appeals Court Justice Cynthia Cohen. Also, judicial guidelines will be made available to every judge in the state to help them work with non-lawyers unfamiliar with court procedure.
"One continuing area of deep concern to all of us, judges and lawyers alike, is access to justice," Marshall said. "Our commonwealth grows increasingly diverse, ethnically, economically, linguistically. Every area of the law grows more complex, making the question of legal representation particularly important. The legions of self-represented litigants continue to grow."
To help self-represented litigants, a court handbook is being produced that will help people involved in civil cases better understand basic courtroom procedures, rules, terminology and demeanor.
She also announced an initiative dealing with "limited scope representation," or "unbundling," that permits attorneys to represent clients for specific legal needs instead of the entire case. A pilot program will begin in the Suffolk and Hampden Probate and Family Courts either late this year or early next year. The goal is to help people with specific legal needs, thus speeding up the process.
"The affordability crisis poses dangers to our core values. Justice is not a commodity. It is the heartbeat of a civil society," she said.