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Reorganization plan brings order in the courts of Massachusetts

By George B. Merry / December 29, 1983



In an era when criticism of Massachusetts government is all too prevalent, success stories often get overlooked. And one such story - particularly deserving of attention - illustrates many of the reforms ongoing in the state's judicial branch.

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The courts of the commonwealth have made significant strides toward improvement within the past decade - something in which every citizen of Massachusetts can be comforted and proud.

Specifically, considerable progress has been made in speeding up the justice system. Although heavy backlogs of cases awaiting trial, especially civil suits, have not disappeared, significant reductions in caseloads are being made in courthouses across the commonwealth.

Much of the credit belongs to the Massachusetts judiciary itself, including Chief Administrative Judge Arthur M. Mason, whose solid leadership during the past five years has helped institute a smooth-working trial court.

Credit is also due to lawmakers who passed the 1978 court-reorganization statute - a law that created Judge Mason's position and coordinated seven separate, sometimes overlapping court operations.

While the reorganization law may not go as far as some would like, it has provided a workable blueprint for giving the Bay State its money's worth in justice.

This is not to suggest that judicial costs have shrunk, or even been capped, under the new setup. Like almost everything else in state government, the court-operation budget has increased. It is unrealistic to expect this will not continue, although probably at a slower pace.

What has been accomplished is greater centralization in purchasing, in personnel management, and in record keeping. Now available at the flick of a finger is a history of every case in every court, including names of the principles and lawyers, and readiness for trial.

Also contributing to an apparent improvement in scheduling is the increased flexibility in assigning judges from one court to another, as needed. Without the authority to make temporary transfers from one bench to another, as well as from one courthouse to another, it is questionable whether much of the backlog would have been whittled.

However, the administration of justice is still hobbled in all corners of the state by the immobility of other court personnel. The chief administrative judge is unable to shift clerks and other judicial personnel from courthouses where the workload is light to locations where extra manpower is needed.

The clerks and their aides, understandably, want no part of such an arrangement. Some of the individuals involved have political connections (indeed , some are former state lawmakers), so prospects for expanding transferability are remote at best.

Yet this may well be the next logical step to an even more efficient trial court system. Unless state legislators can put the well-being of the judicial process before these friendships, it is doubtful whether the court-case flow can be increased - even if more judges were added.

Since court reorganization was enacted - with its provision for a 262-judge ceiling within the trial court's seven divisions (superior, housing, juvenile, probabe, land, district, and Boston municipal) - these benches have been expanded by 20 seats.

This includes 14 added late in 1982, in the final weeks of the tenure of former Gov. -Edward J. King.

Presumably these additional judges were needed then, are needed now, and will be needed after all courts have eliminated their backlogs. The probate court, for example, has greatly reduced its waiting lists, helped considerably by court reorganization and the increase of its bench from 27 to 37 judges.

Contested divorces, which formerly took between one year to 18 months to reach trial, now can be taken up in six months or less.

In the district courts, about 90 percent of the cases go to trial or are otherwise disposed of within three months, much shorter than before reorganization was passed in mid-1978.

But nowhere has the impact been greater than in the Superior Court where most trials, particularly the complex ones, are conducted. Five years ago, more than 20,000 criminal cases were awaiting trial across the commonwealth. Now the backlog is about 14,000.

The greatest challenge for both courts and litigants remains in civil suits, where it still takes about three years for a case to reach trial. But here, too, progress is being made; it used to take nearly twice as long for plaintiff and defendants to have their day in court.

In many instances, trial delays in civil and criminal cases are often the result of postponements - when one or both sides are not ready to present their cases. Since litle can be done about this situation, it seems unlikely that the trial courts of the commonwealth, no matter how efficient, will ever wipe out all backlogs. Were this to happen, there might be a lot fewer out-of-court settlements, perhaps leading to a heavier judicial workload.

Another way to aid the administration of justice would be to have more adequate court facilities available in several parts of the state. Some courthouses are crowded and lack enough suitable courtrooms. District courts, in particular, encounter this problem.

This might have been different had the special commission, appointed by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in early 1975, been asked to focus attention on this. Instead that panel of judges, lawmakers, and laymen, chaired by Harvard Law Prof. Archibald Cox, was assigned to concentrate on potential improvements in the operation and structure of the trial courts.

Although not directly involved in trial court operations, Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and his six fellow justices are responsible for superintending the commonwealth's judiciary. And it was the SJC, in August 1978, that selected Judge Morse to head the new unified trial court - a choice which cannot be faulted.