May 21, 2015

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Bonding Committee:

I’m happy to appear before you to discuss the capital needs of the court system at this time.  For the past year, we at the Trial Court, in concert with the Department of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, and with the support of expert consultants, have been assessing the state of the Commonwealth’s courthouses.

I have alarming news to report to you.  While there are some good examples of modern, efficient courthouses in Massachusetts, a distressing majority of courthouses in the state are seriously dilapidated or in an advanced state of disrepair.

    • Our compliance with everything from ADA accessibility standards to life safety codes is highly inconsistent, and many buildings reveal serious violations of regulatory standards.  

    • Systems in many courthouses are well beyond their useful life, and it is only a matter of time before they fail; to invest further capital in some of these buildings would only be to throw good money after bad.  

    • While we’ve made some significant strides in the energy efficiency of a number of our buildings, many others continue to waste precious energy resources.

    • Some older courthouses are configured in such a way that they can never be made safely operable for their current uses – prisoners, the public and judges all must move within the same public spaces; these should either be closed or repurposed for the safety of all.

    • And with 101 courthouses currently in use, there is no way that the Commonwealth can afford the dollars necessary to maintain or upgrade all the aging courthouses across Massachusetts.

In the course of the next two decades, courthouses will unquestionably close in Massachusetts.  There are only two choices:  either we will close some existing courthouses in a thoughtful, carefully planned way, based on our resources and the needs of our residents; or courthouse systems will fail and courthouses will close in the way that the Cambridge Superior Courthouse closed just seven years ago – suddenly, expensively, in crisis, disorder and failure.  

Recognizing that the current court infrastructure of Massachusetts is unsustainable, we have been working to develop a 20-year plan to establish an efficient and sustainable network of courthouses across the state.  This plan will involve investment in every courthouse in the state, except those that make more sense to close and consolidate into larger regional facilities.  Our plan will propose a meaningful reduction in the number of courthouses, ensuring that all courthouses of the Commonwealth are affordable for the state’s taxpayers to support, from both a capital and operating perspective.  

We have entered an era that will dramatically alter the business processes by which justice will be delivered in Massachusetts.  The digitization of all court processes will sharply alter the routine business of serving 42,000 residents of Massachusetts each day.  An entirely new way of operating will emerge from changes now underway in the Trial Court:

    • MassCourts, the Trial Court’s case management system, will be entirely installed in all seven departments of the court system by the end of this calendar year, establishing an integrated system of case management across the entire system;

    • The Electronic Application for Criminal Complaint, now piloted and operating in five court locations, is expected to be standard across the system within two years, with the collaboration of the state’s police departments and their software providers;

    • E-filing, to be piloted in three trial courts, will become the preferred mechanism for filing court documents, as attorneys adopt the enormous efficiencies for them and for us that accompany e-filing;

    • Attorneys will check their calendars and dockets online through an Attorney Portal to MassCourts that is right now gaining subscribers at the rate of 1000 per month;

    • Attorneys and self-represented litigants will no longer need to visit the clerks’ offices to research cases and records; they will download documents online to prepare for court. 66,000 separate individuals accessed court documents online last month – that’s 66,000 people who didn’t call or visit a clerk’s office.

    • The Trial Court, with the approval of the SJC, will this year commence the move from maintaining paper records of all cases to preserving all court records on servers, allowing documents to move about the courthouse and among parties electronically, and eliminating the need for the enormous amount of space in which the archived documents of the court are stored;

    • Self-represented litigants will no longer encounter a mystifying and impenetrable court system, but will rely on 15 court service centers and a clear and helpful court website to navigate the court process.  

This may be an aggressive prediction, but I believe that within three years – by the end of fiscal year 2018 – the Trial Court will be 85% digitized.  The digital era will see dramatic improvements in the efficiency and the accessibility of our justice system, if we invest our dollars in physical and technological infrastructure wisely.  But if we fail to seize the opportunity before us, and refuse to make the critical decisions necessary at this juncture, we will waste untold taxpayer dollars and watch the justice system in Massachusetts decline into indignity and disrepair.  

Massachusetts boasts the oldest and finest judicial system in the nation.  We can either preserve and leverage that great heritage, or we can simply look the other way while the court system infrastructure in Massachusetts weakens and succumbs to shameful neglect.    

In the weeks ahead, we will propose an approach to meet the capital needs of the court system that will ensure a bright and affordable future for the delivery of justice in this state.  We do not expect our proposal to be the last word on the future of the court system.  We in the Judiciary are not the ultimate decision-makers concerning the court’s infrastructure.  You in the Legislature must make the painful and difficult decisions of which courthouses will be repaired, which replaced and which closed. The Governor will decide how much money will be expended each year for court capital, and will ultimately decide what will be repaired and what built.  We only recommend.

We understand that there will be pressure on the Legislature to maintain local courthouses.  In making our recommendation, we recognize that present day demands for easy access to a courthouse will reverberate more strongly in the chambers of this State House than the exceptional opportunities for efficiencies that lie ahead of us if we make some hard decisions now.  Recognizing that the pressures on the Legislature will emphasize access to justice, our proposal will emphasize efficiency of operations.  

While we recognize that some small, high cost courthouses must remain open in some of the poorest and most remote sections of the state, we will urge consolidation of courthouses wherever that can be accomplished without substantial hardship to those who use the courthouse.  We will strongly press the case for Regional Justice Centers, providing opportunities for advanced digitization and economies of scale that will benefit both taxpayers and court users.  Small courthouses are extremely expensive to operate: courthouses with annual caseloads less than 10 to 12,000 cases have sharply higher costs per case than consolidated courthouses with higher caseloads.  If the 15 small courthouses with the highest costs per case were to reduce their costs to the average, the court system would save $35 million a year.

We believe that our proposal, which we expect to issue in the coming weeks, will represent a powerful starting point for an important conversation about how we can best deploy our limited resources in the next 20 years to ensure that we provide justice to all, with dignity and speed.  We do not expect that the final plan will be the plan we initially propose.  Some aspects of our plan will be opposed by local interests determined to preserve the status quo.  But we also know that if we seek to make everyone happy at this moment, we will ultimately cost everyone, both taxpayers and court users, far more by our failure to make wise judgments now.

In developing this capital plan, we have done more extensive and thorough analysis than has ever been done on a capital plan in Massachusetts.  Not only have we done a detailed investigation of the repair, renovation and replacement costs of all courthouses in need, but we have also performed a net present value analysis of alternative scenarios, ensuring the best value for the taxpayers of the state.  Wherever we have proposed consolidations, we have used court user zip codes to detail the impact on court users: for what proportion of court users will the new location be a detriment and for what proportion a benefit.

We are currently deeply engaged in the design of the new Lowell Regional Justice Center.  This will be the first courthouse of the digital era, as it will open in four years, after digitization has greatly advanced in the court system.  We are examining the organization charts of court systems that have digitized to help us envision court operations in a digital environment.  We are undertaking a courtroom utilization study to see how we can maximize the effective use of expensive courtroom space.  

We have reorganized security to make dramatically more efficient use of court officers for the safety of court users and staff.  We have greatly reduced storage space to reflect the new realities of digital preservation of documents.  We are planning for extensive utilization of videoconferencing to reduce the transportation costs and safety risks of transporting prisoners to and from courthouses.  We recognize that in a digital world, law libraries can serve the needs of both the bar and of self-represented litigants through online resources, without consuming all the space that traditional book libraries required.

Our partnership with DCAMM is already strong, but under new DCAMM Commissioner Carol Gladstone is still further improving.  DCAMM staff have been integral to the development of our capital plan, and we have worked seamlessly as a team to produce the finest plan possible.  Recently, however, my staff have remarked on a new speed and crispness of decision-making at DCAMM, under the new Commissioner.  We are grateful to be partnered with a capable DCAMM staff under creative and decisive leadership.

In the course of the coming months, we will engage in a detailed dialogue with the legislative and executive branches, to plan a 21st century court system. Operationally, that work is advancing very rapidly.  But the infrastructure of the justice system must similarly be reformed and renovated:  we must right size our court system, to reflect the efficiencies of scale, digitization and innovation that can be accomplished on behalf of the taxpayers and court users of the Commonwealth.  

We look forward to working with you to make the decisions that future calls us to.  

Harry Spence
Court Administrator
Massachusetts Trial Court