- Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
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Media Contact for Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants Delivers State of the Judiciary Speech 2019
Jennifer Donahue and Erika Gully-Santiago
BOSTON, MA — Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants today presented his sixth annual address at the Massachusetts Bar Association's State of the Judiciary event in the John Adams Courthouse and highlighted several new and ongoing initiatives in the courts.
Chief Justice Gants discussed the work of the Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, which was formed in 2018 to explore and analyze the state of lawyer well-being in the Commonwealth. The committee issued a report in July 2019 finding that the legal profession faces serious challenges to the well-being of its practitioners.
"Hundreds of lawyers and judges participated in this effort, and . . . produced a comprehensive report . . . that offers many thoughtful and detailed recommendations to improve the working life of lawyers in whatever setting or area of law they practice and to address the aspects of our legal profession that contribute to preventable stress, to isolation, to mental health challenges, and to alcohol and substance use disorders," said Chief Justice Gants.
Chief Justice Gants announced immediate actions taken by the Supreme Judicial Court, including the formation of a new Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, co-chaired by retired Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford and Denise Murphy, Esq., President-Elect of the Massachusetts Bar Association, to continue the work to improve lawyer well-being. In addition, the SJC will establish a pilot mentoring program for newly admitted solo and small firm practitioners, and the Chief Justice also urged all legal organizations to take a fresh look at establishing mentor programs in their communities. Chief Justice Gants also said that he will send an email survey out to the bar, "so that we have a clearer picture of who our bar is and what our attorneys do, so that we can better meet the needs of all members of the bar."
Chief Justice Gants also spoke about the work of the Supreme Judicial Court Working Group on Substance Use and Mental Health, created this summer, which includes representatives from throughout the Trial Court.
"The SJC has recognized that, in light of the latest advances in medical knowledge, it is time to reexamine our approaches to working with criminal defendants and other litigants who are wrestling with substance use disorders. And since persons with substance use disorders are so often afflicted by mental health problems, we cannot investigate one subject adequately without studying the other as well," said Chief Justice Gants. The Working Group will endeavor by 2021 to "prepare a report that will provide guidance as to how we can wisely, effectively, and humanely support those who come to us in court with substance use and mental health challenges in a manner that is consistent with public safety and fundamental principles of justice."
Chief Justice Gants spoke of the serious challenges faced by the more than ninety percent of tenants and thirty percent of landlords who seek without counsel to navigate the intricacies of summary process eviction cases. He noted, "I know that there are legislative efforts afoot here in Massachusetts to provide legal counsel for all indigent parties in eviction proceedings, not only tenants but also indigent landlords who rely on the timely receipt of rent to make their mortgage payments and avoid foreclosure, and I hope that by next year these efforts may finally come to fruition."
"But," he added, "if we are committed to residential stability, to reduce the number of evictions, and to avoid homelessness, we must do more than provide legal counsel. Few landlords wish to commence an eviction action; they simply want the rent that they are due. Most are amenable to search for a solution other than an eviction. The likelihood of avoiding an eviction is magnified if the search for that solution begins at or before the notice to quit and does not wait till the eviction complaint is served. And efforts to avoid eviction are most likely to succeed if funds are available through government or community programs either to pay a temporary shortfall in rent or to find alternative housing within the community."
Chief Justice Gants also talked about the momentum behind developing a virtual court service center to assist litigants who need help navigating the court system.
"Until we create a world in which all who need counsel in civil cases have access to counsel, we must do all we can to make the court system more understandable and accessible for the many litigants who must represent themselves. Over the last several years we have established court service centers to assist court users in six of our busiest courthouses. Court service centers offer information about court rules, procedures, and practices; one-on-one help in filling out court forms and help with legal research; access to online resources and interpreter services; and help to connect litigants with community resources, legal assistance programs, and social service agencies."
"In an ideal world, we would have a court service center in every courthouse. But we have 99 courthouses in this Commonwealth . . . so we need to develop a virtual court service center that is available to everyone online. Over the last three years, the Trial Court and the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law & Justice have partnered together to study this idea, and just this month Appleseed issued its resulting report," said Chief Justice Gants. "As envisioned in this report, a virtual court service center would collect the Trial Court's existing self-help materials at a centralized, easily navigable website; offer "LiveHelp" options such as phone lines and chat services that give users direct, individualized guidance; and provide guided interviews and document assembly programs that enable users to fill out and e-file court forms and documents. Over the next few months we will be carefully studying the proposal for a virtual court service center and begin mapping a path forward."
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, Trial Court Administrator Jonathan S. Williams, and Massachusetts Bar Association President John J. Morrissey also delivered remarks.
"Diversity is an integral part of how the Trial Court promotes justice, equity, fairness, inclusion and respect for all people regardless of identity, ethnicity, gender or race," said Chief Justice Paula Carey. Chief Justice Carey described a recent trip with judges to the new Legacy Museum in Alabama, and added, "It made me more committed than ever to our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives, not only in the Trial Court, but in our communities at-large. If we really want our justice system to be true to the words of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Rights, we must walk the walk, talk the talk . . . and stand up."
"We want to thank the Legislature for their support of our operating budgets over the years," said Trial Court Administrator Jonathan Williams. "Unfortunately, we cannot meet our technology goals with operating funds alone. We need major capital investment to transform the role of technology in the justice system. Working with our legislative partners, an IT Bond Bill was recently filed to meet the wide range of technology needs for the Judicial Branch to execute its transition to the world of eCourts and cyber security."
"The Massachusetts Bar Association is honored to present the Annual State of the Judiciary Address, and we look forward to continuing our work with our partners in the judiciary to address the important issues facing our community, our profession and our justice system," said MBA President John J. Morrissey. "In particular, this year we will be working together on issues of lawyer well-being identified by the Supreme Judicial Court's Steering Committee."