Legislative, court leaders unveil court reform bill

Issue May 2011 By Bill Archambeault

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, with Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland literally and figuratively standing by his side, unveiled major court reform legislation on April 21.

"Today, we have two branches of government standing together," DeLeo said at the start of a Statehouse press conference. In emphasizing the new level of collaboration between his office and the judiciary, he said longstanding tension between the two "ends today."

The legislation, scheduled for a May 3 hearing, calls for splitting the responsibilities of the chief justice for administration and management by 1. creating a "chief justice of the Trial Court" to manage judicial duties and 2. creating a new Office of Court Management headed by a non-judicial professional to manage the courts' business operations. Civilian mangers would also be hired as deputy court administrators for each of the Trial Court's seven departments.

"The legislation announced today marks an historic and unprecedented agreement between the Legislature and court system. The creation of a court administrator position to be filled by an expert, non-judicial civilian administrator brings to fruition decades worth of independent reports and findings on Massachusetts court reform that have recommended such action," said Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer and chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

The MBA has called for court reform for decades, including issuing the independently commissioned 1991 Harbridge House Report, as well as the 2003 MBA Court Study Task Force Report, both of which included detailed findings supporting the use of a non-judicial court administrator.

The legislation would also keep the Probation Dept., which had been plagued by a patronage hiring scandal, under the courts' jurisdiction, but make major reforms in the hiring process. Gov. Deval Patrick wants to put Probation under executive branch authority, but DeLeo and court leaders say it needs to remain part of the courts to maintain essential working relationships between judges and probation officers.

The bill removes the Probation commissioner's unilateral hiring authority and requires a standardized test for all Probation Dept. job applicants. For candidates who pass the test and advance, any hiring recommendations would have to be written and made public. Also, all successful candidates would have to disclose any relatives working in state government.

A number of allies flanked DeLeo at the press conference, including fellow legislators and: Boston College's Father J. Donald Monan, who chaired the committee that wrote 2003's Monan Report, the blueprint for court reform, and Stephen Crosby, Gov. William Weld's secretary of Administration and Finance, who led the Probation Department hiring task force in response to last year's scandal.

Ireland praised the bill, saying it would bolster improvements that have been underway since the Monan Report highlighted significant problems in the court system. Ireland said that Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan "has achieved remarkable results" implementing those reforms in the last eight years.

Ireland said, "I look forward to continuing to work with the speaker on improving the administration of justice." He cited a number of studies, including the MBA's reports, as support for hiring a professional business manager with no judicial responsibilities.

DeLeo hopes to pass a bill in the House by mid-May, in time for the Senate to consider it during its budget

"The MBA urges swift passage of the legislation to professionalize court management and better align the state with other court systems with professional managers. Litigants and the public alike deserve a highly efficient system that makes the most use of every dwindling taxpayer dollar," Healy said.

"This isn't 'tinkering around the edges,'" DeLeo said. "This is a major, major policy change for how people are hired in the commonwealth."

In response to a question, Ireland said he didn't see any conflict with judges helping shape the legislation. "We felt it was an opportunity for the judiciary to have a say in the way the legislation was drafted."