Protecting courthouses’ ‘lifeblood

Issue February 2011 By Kelsey Sadoff

On average, 45,000 people enter the Massachusetts courts each day, starting and ending their court visits in the office of the clerk-magistrate.

For members of the public visiting the Boston Municipal Court, that usually means they will run into Daniel J. Hogan, who has served as the court's clerk-magistrate for 11 years and manages the largest clerks' office in the commonwealth.
"The clerk-magistrate is an integral cog in the wheels of justice," said Hogan. "Every piece of paper in the courthouse begins with a clerk -- small claims, search warrants, making determinations of probable cause -- we perform every function that a judge does with the exception of saying 'Guilty.'"

In Massachusetts, clerk-magistrates are judicial officers primarily responsible for the management and administration of the court's business. Clerk-magistrates also serve as judicial hearing officers on procedural criminal matters, such as show-cause hearings and civil small claims sessions.

Clerk-magistrates in the commonwealth are also gubernatorial appointments and do not need a law degree to be eligible for the position. Hogan, however, graduated from Suffolk Law School in 1994 and has found his degree has been helpful in "understanding arguments and the lawyer's role in the system."

"A law degree has helped me think analytically and like a lawyer," he said, who believes that the best trait a clerk can have is the ability to work well with people.

Hogan, who has worked in the courts for more than 20 years, was appointed BMC clerk-magistrate by Gov. Paul Cellucci in 2000. He previously served as acting clerk-magistrate, first assistant clerk and assistant clerk for the court. Hogan's clerk-magistrate position at the BMC is unique because he oversees both civil and criminal business, whereas most courts have a clerk-magistrate for each, effectively doubling his workload. "He is a working clerk, he will not ask anyone to do something he will not do himself," said BMC's First Assistant Clerk-Magistrate Rosemary T. Carr, who has worked under four clerk-magistrates, and with Hogan since 1988. "He took the clerk's office to another level and made it a better place to work … he helped bring the clerk's office into the 21st century."

Family Ties

The son of retired Dedham District Court Judge William Hogan, he grew up in Needham, the second youngest of 10 children. Of his seven sisters and two brothers, five went on to become lawyers. Hogan's older sister, Mary, now occupies what was once his father's Dedham District Court seat.

A Boston College High School graduate, Hogan received his bachelor's degree in economics from Stonehill College before attending Suffolk Law at night.

"When I started entry-level in the courts, I observed a lot of lawyers who did a wonderful job for clients, and some that were not so prepared," Hogan said of his initial interest in attending law school. "I thought, I can do this."

During his four years at law school, Hogan began each day at 7 a.m. as a BMC - procedures clerk making $15,000 while paying $18,000 to go to law school. After leaving work at 4:30 p.m., Hogan would head to class from 5 to 10 p.m., and then bartend from 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

"My father always said you get a degree - no one can take that away from you," said Hogan, who also has a Masters of Science degree from the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

He admits though that his path through the educational system was not always easy.

"People helped me get here," he said. "People have helped me along the way at every step in my life, and I now try to give it back. That is my philosophy."

Inside the courthouse

As the BMC's clerk-magistrate for the better part of the last decade, Hogan knows the inner workings of the court system, and the vital role that clerks play in the administration of justice.

For courthouses to run smoothly -- although "there is always the inherent conflict between judge and clerk" -- Hogan believes judges and clerks should understand their roles and not try to over-exercise authority.

"From a judge's perspective, the lines of authority are not clear," he said. "From my perspective, the lines of authority could not be clearer. What judges should do is get on the bench at 9 a.m. and hear cases. If they would do that, then the system would be better off and clerks would be responsible for internal administration. As much as a courthouse is the lifeblood of the community, the clerk is the lifeblood of the courthouse. Nothing moves forward or backward without the clerk's office."

"There is not a single so-called expert in the courts that knows half as much as Dan Hogan about the system and the intricate nuances of procedural law," said MBA Chief Operating Officer and Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy. "He is well-respected and a go-to person for legislators and court leaders, having quietly played a tremendous role in numerous policy and legislative matters."

Although a large portion of a clerk's job is focused on administrative tasks, as public servants, elected and appointed clerks are also accountable to the public. At the BMC, there is no voicemail or automated phone system, giving the public direct access to office staff and clerks when they call with questions.

"I think from the moment he has been there [at the BMC], he has worked very hard." Judge Hogan said of his son. "He has made significant improvements … He has done a good job in training employees when they merged the criminal and civil sides. I believe it is quite well known that the BMC is working much better since he took over."

An Economic Impact

Hogan believes the recent economic climate has had a major impact on the court system. With an explosion of pro se litigants in the courts, his BMC office has become creative, educating its workforce to explain the court processes to the public in layman's terms. On Wednesdays, the court offers a program where volunteer attorneys come in to work with pro se litigants.

"We don't build cars and widgets here," Hogan said. "We deal with people. The courts are the last bastion, and personnel have to take extraordinary measures -- we have become social workers, mental health workers -- we have been asked to wear so many hats."

Hogan has also found that the economy has created a surge in "crimes of necessity," where citizens are forced to do things they wouldn't normally do in order to feed their families or pay certain bills. Hogan refers to these incidents as "state-of-life filings," that ultimately create a vicious cycle. When individuals are faced with unemployment, and might lose everything, that can lead to depression, abuse and then legal problems.

With lawyers, Hogan sees the downturn in the economy making the practice of law more adversarial.

"From my perspective, the practice of law has become more robotic," he said. "No one goes outside to come up with a reasonable solution -- no one takes time to talk."

One positive from the economic downturn is that Hogan sees the courts becoming more cognizant of the issues single and small-firm practitioners face. At the BMC, his office has started to consider scheduling adjustments to limit practitioners numerous appearances in court, aiding solo and small-firm lawyers whose extra time in the office can positively impact revenue.

While Hogan acknowledges that the court has to adapt to changes in technology and become more user-friendly by allowing people better access to the court, the economy has hampered the process.

"We have made some pretty good strides, but without funding, there is only so much you can do," said Hogan, who believes that members of the courts have an obligation to effectively advocate for adequate funding to perform constitutional mandates.

"We do a tremendous job," he said. "But we can't do it without resources. Our most effective resource is our people and we have lost over 1,000 in the last few years. We can't keep losing people at that rate."

A Leader of Clerks

Hogan has been involved in the Association for Magistrates and Assistant Clerks since graduating from law school in 1994, and has been elected each of the last four years as president of the 400-member association.

"Our number one goal is to educate the public and elected officials on what we do, which is sometimes overshadowed," he said. "These are difficult times and we need to focus on helping keep the benefits of this job in place, so it doesn't continue to get eroded."

Keith E. McDonough, who has known Hogan for 10 years through the association and is its current vice president, credits him with "professionalizing the association" and increasing its stature.

"I can say that in the past - prior to his becoming president -- the clerks' association may not have been routinely consulted by the (chief justices) with issues involving clerks," said McDonough. "That has changed."

Hogan and McDonough are both members of the Trial Court's Fiscal Task Force and, as a result, are able to speak on behalf of clerks across the commonwealth. With the likelihood of further fiscal cuts - both men are working to make sure the hard work of clerks is well known.

"We have a goal to try to maintain the present staffing levels in our offices," said McDonough.

"There are different needs for different courts," said Hogan, who believes the system that clerk-magistrates operate under -- a site-based management approach -- with each court-magistrate making decisions about what is best for each office, could possibly be a good model for the judiciary as it deals with the aftermath of the Probation Department scandal. "I believe our approach is the best in the judiciary. It is a model that maybe should be looked at."

In the end, Hogan's main focus is on helping members of the public and legal community, by managing an efficient facility that meets their needs.

"When they are coming up to my casket, if they tell my kids, 'Your dad was a good man and he helped me …' -- if I can be half the man my father is, I will have been a success" he said.  "In the end, that will be good enough for me."