Meet the new chiefs

Issue January 2014 By Christina P. O'Neill & Joshua Crawford

The Trial Court appointed new chief justices for three of its departments over the last few months: the District Court, Boston Municipal Court and Land Court. While District Court Chief Justice Paul C. Dawley has been at the helm since September 2013, Land Court Chief Justice Judith Chanoux Cutler and BMC Chief Justice Roberto Ronquillo Jr. began their terms this month. As the Trial Court court moves into 2014, Lawyers Journal sat down with the three new chiefs to get a sense of their departments' priorities and what lies ahead for their respective courts.

Land Court Chief Justice Judith Chanoux Cutler

Good to Know

Law school: Suffolk University Law School

Judicial role model: Learned from many justices.

People would be surprised to learn: The law was my third career choice behind fine arts and the social sciences. A career in urban planning led to my decision to go into law.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
What I hope to accomplish in the first several months is to continue work on achieving the Land Court's goals and objectives for FY 2014, to monitor and evaluate the progress to achieve them, and then to identify goals and objectives for FY 2015. In six months, I hope to be able to give a fuller answer. Those goals are primarily focused around access to justice issues, general effectiveness and internal accountability, capacity-building and continuing community participation and outreach to the public.

What will be the most challenging aspect of switching gears from judge to judicial administrator?
The biggest challenge will be to fill the shoes of Chief Justice [Karyn J.] Scheier. I won't be shifting entirely from sitting as a judge to being an administrator. Because we have so few judges on this court, I will actually still be maintaining a substantial caseload while fulfilling my administrative role. Additionally, [I will be] familiarizing myself with general court-wide issues in which all chief justices have to be involved in. It's a big challenge, particularly in the first year, but I certainly look forward to it.

Do you foresee any new reforms on the horizon for the Land Court?

No, not in the near future. We will continue to work on improving access to justice. Last year, we enacted a regulation permitting Limited Assistance Representation in the court, which allows hitherto unrepresented pro se litigants to get attorney assistance if even for short periods or for limited purposes, during litigation. This is not only beneficial to them but [also] to the court. We will also continue to work on improving public access to general information [through] the usefulness of our website.

A year after it was implemented, how do you see Limited Assistance Representation (LAR) working in the Land Court?
Judge Robert Foster has worked with the bar associations to encourage attorney referral services to include LAR-qualified attorneys on their lists, and he also has participated in panels to try and introduce this as an effective tool, and educate attorneys on how to properly use it. … I think it involves a lot of training and some edges have to be smoothed out, but I see it going forward as relieving a lot of the burdens of the court.

As a judge, what benefit do you receive from open dialogue with lawyers?
We pride ourselves [on having] good relations with the area bar associations. … The judges here, and our chief title examiner and our recorder, routinely are involved in seminars and conferences [with the Real Estate Bar Association for Massachusetts, the MBA and Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education]; one of the things about that is that we get an opportunity at those events to hear practicing attorneys' views on evolving legal issues and to meet and speak with attorneys on a one on one basis. It's always valuable to hear their comments and their concerns, whether they're positive or negative, and then to try to work together to resolve something that's of mutual interest. I think the LAR introduction is a perfect example of this. We do get regular feedback on our website and we adjust accordingly.

Should judicial evaluations be more open in terms of providing attorneys and the public insights in how problems are dealt with?
I am on the judicial evaluation committee [which has been] working quite hard to develop a process whereby there will be attorney involvement in the development of a new questionnaire, and the implementation of a newer process. I think people don't understand - I didn't as an attorney - how important the feedback is to the judges. All judges I've met only want to be better judges, and need constructive feedback, and really do take it to heart.

What are the hurdles you see for your court over the next several years?
A big immediate hurdle is that I will be dealing with the changeover of judges since two of seven judges are reaching mandatory retirement age in the next year and a half. We will be losing seasoned judges, and a lot of institutional knowledge along with them. Fortunately, the governor's office has already begun the process of recruiting new judges to fill the vacancies as they come up, but we will have to deal with training and getting new judges up to speed. … Budgetary issues are always a hurdle. The Land Court has been operating with a significantly reduced staff level over the past several years due to hiring freezes and attrition. But we [were] finally allowed to make some critical hires over the last couple of years and that [greatly helped] us process our cases and [get] them through the system. We've also not had a full complement of law clerks for at least three years, and in a court where we do a significant amount of legal research and writing … this is a handicap that we have been trying to deal with. We are fortunate that we have good working relationships with the local law schools and we've been able to bring in law students to work as interns. We've also benefitted from the fellowship program in the last couple of years where graduate law students are able to fill positions here; that [has] relieved some of the research/writing burden from judges. But we can't rely on these temporary measures as a long term solution.

How can lawyers help?
They can and have helped a great deal. First of all, many lawyers have given time and energy to supporting the courts; just in attending conferences, attending rallies, talking with their representatives and so forth to maintain funding for the courts, and that certainly is appreciated.

But the other thing that many individual attorneys can do, and many of them [have], is provide to the court useful filings. For example, if you're filing for a simple motion, supply the judge with a draft judgment, a draft order. Many attorneys are willing to forward those as PDF or Word documents that [can be converted] easily and saves a lot of typing time. It helps the attorney to get more of what they want, and they can be very specific in what they're asking for; those kinds of things providing information to the judges in a very logical and succinct manner can only help relieve the burden. Many lawyers provide copies of the cases that they are citing so we don't have to go and look it up.

[Additonally] attorneys who are willing and able to coordinate scheduling of motions [are helpful]. … Attorneys who are prepared to say, "I talked to opposing counsel and they are available this day and this day and this day, let us know if any of these work," [constitutes] an enormous amount of help.

-- Christina P. O'Neill

District Court Chief Justice Paul C. Dawley

Good to Know

Law School: Suffolk University Law School

Judicial Role Model: Former Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Steadman. As a former prosecutor, I tried numerous cases in front of him. He was an excellent trial judge with extensive knowledge of substantive law and the rules of evidence. His work ethic was tremendous and he was fair to all.

What inspired you to enter the highly competitive process to become a chief?
I believe it is a privilege to be Chief Justice of the District Court. Our court is where the public often gains its first and only impression of the justice system. As the largest Trial Court department, our courts hear a wide range of criminal, civil, mental health, abuse prevention, small claims, housing and other types of cases. Last year, 625,000 cases were filed in our 62 courts. The court personnel do an excellent job of ensuring that the system is accessible to all.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
I have established four major goals and objectives for the District Court in 2014: working with the Probation Department to reduce recidivism in criminal cases; improving caseflow management; enhancing judicial education and training for judges and other court personnel; and increasing public outreach efforts with the community, members of the bar, educators and legislators.

Have you had to adjust your leadership approach from prior roles now since you've taken the helm as leader of the largest judicial department in the commonwealth?
Every day is a learning experience. This position poses different challenges than those of being first justice of the Brockton District Court or a regional administrative justice due to the more numerous and wider array of issues that arise. The best leaders I have worked with in my career were fair, open minded, inclusive, hard-working and decisive. These are the leadership traits I admire and will try to emulate.

What is the more pressing issue you see for the modernization of the District Court?
My observation is that the Trial Court is making significant progress to modernize the system. Electronic filing of cases and online accessibility of information are important issues for the future efficiency of the District Court operations. For example, the potential ability of police departments to file reports and applications for criminal complaints online with the clerks' offices will improve the efficiency and administration of these offices. In addition, the use of videoconferencing equipment will modernize the system in other ways. The constructive use of technology will also permit greater access by the public. In the long run, I think the modernization of these systems will increase the public confidence in the Trial Court.

What has been the biggest challenge you've faced in your first few months on the job?
The greatest challenge is learning the issues and needs of each of our 62 courts. My hope is that the administrative office can serve as a positive support system for the work conducted in the courtroom. I have visited 25 courts in my first four months as chief justice. During these court visits, two things strike me as obvious: first, the staff in the District Court is dedicated and committed to serving the public, and second, each court uniquely serves the needs of its communities. These visits reinforce, for me, the outstanding work that is being performed.

How has the crisis in the Hinton state lab affected your courts?
The situation has had a significant impact not only on public safety, but also the operation of the District Court. Several thousand District Court criminal cases, pending and post-conviction, were affected by the lab crisis. The procedure established in the District Court to expedite the handling of these cases has ensured fair and efficient hearings. Prior to my appointment as chief justice, I was one of the judges in Plymouth County assigned to hear these cases. I witnessed firsthand the significant time and resources allocated to address the situation. With input from the district attorneys and [Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS)], the special sessions set up to hear these cases have been an effective way to deal with difficult circumstances. We continue to monitor the situation.

What are the hurdles you see for your court over the next several years?
The most significant issue facing the District Court over the next several years is ensuring adequate resources to operate the courts in a professional manner. We need adequate staffing to carry out our responsibilities. I credit the Legislature and executive branch for recognizing this and improving this situation. We need their continued support.

As a judge, what benefit do you receive from open dialogue with lawyers?
Feedback on operational and administrative issues for the District Court is important, particularly as it relates to caseflow management. An exchange of ideas with the bar is essential. It is more productive to gain input from the bar than to simply issue an edict. The plan to establish special sessions to handle the Hinton drug lab cases is a good example. That plan in the District Court was the product of informed discussions with the district attorneys and CPCS.

Should judicial evaluations be more open in terms of providing attorneys and the public insight into how problems are dealt with?
I consider my role in the review of judicial performance evaluations as one of my most important responsibilities. In the District Court, judges spend considerable time and effort on judicial performance enhancement in areas such as mentoring, peer review and videotaping. In the District Court, we have also initiated quarterly meetings on a regional basis to increase educational and training opportunities for judges.

I do not favor disclosing remedial steps taken in the case of specific judges. The statute that governs this procedure created a confidential process, which must be respected. We have an outstanding judiciary in Massachusetts. In my experience, every judge strives for excellence.

--Christina P. O'Neill

BMC Chief Justice Roberto Ronquillo Jr.

Good to Know

Law School: New England School of Law (now New England Law | Boston)

Judicial Role Model: It's a compilation of many judges whom I appeared before or who are my peers.

People would be surprised to learn: My hobby is auto mechanics. And I rebuilt a 1973 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, and drive it still.

What are the particular challenges of an urban court?
The challenge is knowing and learning that community - knowing what that community needs, so that we as a court can serve that community properly. We do that by being accessible to that community, to lawyers and litigants, and having the judges in each of those communities be responsive to those needs.

What inspired you to enter the highly competitive process to become a chief?
My observation as a lawyer of members of the Massachusetts judiciary and my experience as a judge and my observing the employees who work with the judiciary demonstrated to me the passion with which we do what we do. When the opportunity arose, I felt it was a good opportunity for me to take this department to the next level of excellence. Chief Justice [Charles] Johnson laid an incredible foundation for me to build upon. And I felt that this is a great opportunity for the Boston Municipal Court to move on to the next level of excellence, again building on the foundation that Chief Justice Johnson has laid for us.

What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
Initially, I want to take an assessment of the Boston Municipal Court, see what we do well and improve upon it, and where it needs to improve, make the improvement. I know that there is an expansion of the specialty courts - the Drug Courts, the Veterans' Court starting in the Central Division, [and] Mental Health courts - which is a large part of the Trial Court's strategic plan. [I will also] continue to work with the judges and the staff to bring this court to the next level.

Is your community involvement an integral part of your role as a judge?
Part of what we do as a community court judge is to know, again, what the needs of the community are. It is extremely important. We judges try to be very active in the community. …We have the Law Day, in which the elementary, middle and high schools participate in East Boston and Winthrop - parochial, public and private schools. We have the kindergarten program, where the kindergarteners come to the court and we speak to them. We have the Changing Lives Through Literature Program, where we work with probationers, some of whom have gone on to higher education as a result of the program. [We have] the Drug Court, which is very, very important to addressing the substance abuse needs within that community.

So yes, it is critical that we as a court are able to address each of those needs in order to reduce recidivism. And knowing what is necessary to address that is critical to us doing our job.

What are the most integral parts of the Trial Courts new strategic plan ("Justice with Dignity and Speed"), and how does the Language Access Advisory Committee fit in?
The strategic plan as a whole is a very, very important plan, of which I don't think there is any one part that is more important than any other. Obviously the access, the language access, is very important. We have to be sure that the people who appear before us are in tune to what's going on before them. It's treating people with dignity and respect regardless of their ability to speak the language or understand the language with which the court normally conducts business, or socioeconomic level. The purpose of the court is to treat people, through justice, with dignity and speed.

What are the hurdles you see for your court over the next several years?
For the next few years I think the hurdles are going to be mainly providing access to justice within the changing needs of the communities. [T]here is an increased number of pro se litigants, so we need to be able to serve them properly as a court. There are many limited English proficiency individuals who appear before the court, we must ensure they have an understanding of what transpires in the court, particularly when they're affected by whatever is going on in that court. [We must have] the ability to assist with the litigants who have alcohol or substance abuse issues, mental health issues or issues stemming from homelessness. We must try to assist, wherever we can, to alleviate those issues, if for no other reason than many of those issues contribute to recidivism. When the court can assistant in any way to reduce recidivism, it's very important that we do.

The Boston Municipal Court is introducing video conferencing [and] e-filing of police complaints. We have a department-wide call center that will be starting up soon. So there are a lot of initiatives rolling out now in order to address those needs, and we at the Boston Municipal Court are eager to assist whenever we can.

How can lawyers help?
Feedback is very important. I think an open line of communication with the Massachusetts Bar Association [and] the other bar associations allows the court what the lawyers' perspective is. Trust and confidence in the system is incredibly important, and this can only be attained through continual communication between the bench and the bar. … I think we have a fabulous system, an exemplary set of employees, and the judges that sit on the bench and the lawyers that appear before us are very, very good lawyers. And continued communication to see what the needs of both the lawyers and their clients are will only improve this system.

You've touched on the community aspect of the court. Can you elaborate on your vision of the Boston Municipal Court system?
The Boston Municipal Court is eight courts within the jurisdiction of Boston, each one situated in the heart of that community. We are central to that community to resolve any issues that come, so it's important that we are in that community because there is access, quick access to those who need it. Restraining orders, Section 35 petitions, those things are very important to the people who come to our court. So it's important for each judge in those communities [to] do what we do well, which is helping the community through justice. Only through better knowing that community can we better serve one another. And in each of the eight communities there are different needs.

-- Joshua Crawford