Ireland lauds brighter picture for courts as he nears retirement

Issue November 2013 By Nora Tooher

Addressing the legal community at the Massachusetts Bar Association's Bench-Bar Symposium on Oct. 16, Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland - who is nearing the mandatory retirement age of 70 - announced he will step down sometime within the next year.

"It has been the highest honor and privilege to serve with my wonderfully talented colleagues on the SJC," Ireland said in his annual address at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. "I have learned a lot from them and from the many gifted judges and employees in the under-branches."

Ireland turns 70 in December 2014, but said he has not decided exactly when he will retire.

Speaking to a standing-room only audience that included members of the judiciary, the Governor's Council, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Association of Magistrates and Assistant Clerks, Ireland said that many of the court positions and services that were eliminated in the post-2008 fiscal crisis have been restored.

"Although we are not truly out of the woods, the picture today is much brighter than it was when I began," he said.

He thanked Gov. Deval L. Patrick and the Legislature for increasing the courts' budget and approving judicial pay raises. Ireland also thanked the leadership of the Massachusetts Bar Association for supporting the courts' budget proposals.

Ireland was appointed an associate justice of the SJC in 1997 - the first African-American to serve on the SJC - and became senior associate justice in 2008. In 2010, he was appointed chief justice.

'Master mechanic'

Massachusetts Bar Association President Douglas K. Sheff, who introduced the chief justice, said that the governor had described Ireland as the "right man at the right time" to be appointed to that position. "Man, was he right," said Sheff.

"The public's confidence depends on a trusting relationship between the bench and the bar," said Sheff, who described the level of "positive cooperation" between the bench and the bar as "unprecedented."

Recounting the story about how Ireland's high school guidance counselor once recommended he become an auto mechanic, Sheff called Ireland a "master mechanic for justice" who has "rebuilt the engine of an entire legal system."

Prior to introducing Ireland, Sheff unveiled an initiative, "12 for 12," in which 12,000 lawyers will be asked to reach out to 12 non-lawyer clients each, to urge legislators to support adequate funding for the courts.

Ireland said he was pleased that significant progress has been made in three major initiatives he announced when he was appointed chief justice: building bridges to the governor and Legislature; broadening access to justice by making courts more accessible and transparent; and educating the public, especially youth, about the role of the judicial branch.

The chief justice cited several new efforts to improve public access to the courts, reduce backlogs and expedite judicial proceedings, including:

  • Court service kiosks, which will provide information in several languages to members of the public about the judicial process, as well as legal forms. The kiosks will debut soon in a pilot program in several courts, he said.
  • A new judicial website, providing online information and legal forms for downloading.
  • An electronic court filing system for both trial and appellate courts.

Ireland praised recent legislation that replaced the single position of chief justice for administration and management with two new positions: chief justice of the Trial Court and court administrator.

Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, in her first remarks to the bar since assuming the position in July, pledged to work closely with Court Administrator Lewis H. "Harry" Spence.

"The system deserves strong and effective leadership," she said, "and Harry and I are committed to leading with one voice."