Voice of the Judiciary
Near the top of the application for judgeships is an innocent-sounding question: “If appointed, will you accept assignments from time to time in other departments and other geographic divisions as the administrative needs of the Massachusetts Trial Court require?” With visions of Nantucket or the Berkshires in the summer, I cheerfully answered “yes.” Only later did I learn this was a reference to the Judicial Response System (“JRS”), unknown to me at the time and, I suspect, to most lawyers in the Commonwealth.
Courts never close. There is always a judge available if needed. From 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. weekdays, and all hours of the day and night on weekends and holidays, a judge is “on call.” Every trial court judge participates, without exception, serving for a week at a time every eight months or so (judges covering the Berkshires serve for a month), on a rotating basis, in one of the eight districts into which the state has been divided.
What kinds of matters does JRS address? JRS is not a continuation of ordinary court business. It is intended only for true emergencies needing immediate relief. These most often are abuse or harassment prevention orders (c. 209A and c. 258E), search warrants, and probable cause review of warrantless arrests, but also include orders for emergency medical care and treatment when judicial intervention is the only available recourse, psychiatric hospitalization of persons detained by the police, and civil commitment of mentally ill persons at substantial risk of physical harm to themselves or others. There are also other types of emergencies. For couples on their wedding day with their minister, guests, caterers, and band all waiting for the ceremony to begin, but who forgot to obtain the required three-day notice of intent to marry, JRS judges have the authority to waive that requirement, thus allowing the marriage to go forward. Sometimes the JRS judge must involve others, even in the middle of the night. In juvenile matters, often the Department of Children & Families must be contacted for assistance. With civil commitments and medical interventions, counsel for those affected must be obtained.
Orders issued by JRS judges are effective only until the next court day, when the applicants must appear in court to have them extended and those affected by ex parte relief can be there to tell their side of the story.
How does JRS work? Generally speaking, an applicant contacts the local police department, each of which has the district’s “on call” judge’s cell phone number at hand. The police then make the initial contact with the judge. Some matters can be handled over the telephone, typically abuse and harassment prevention orders. Others, such as search warrants, emergency medical care decisions, and civil commitments, require “in person” hearings. Recall that any of these matters can occur at any time of day or night, without warning, and because they are emergencies, the judge must be immediately available and ready to hear and decide them.
What is it like for the judge? The need to be constantly and immediately available means never being out of cell phone coverage, never being anyplace where you cannot be reached or interrupted, no out of state travel, and having a kind and understanding spouse who does not mind (or says they do not mind) a loudly-ringing 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. telephone call, ruining all prospect of remaining sleep. These are not vacation weeks for the judge, who must be in court the next day handling regular matters.
What makes JRS different from any other judicial duty is its range and immediacy. I am a Land Court judge, whose cases center on real property disputes. When I serve on JRS, I am also interdepartmentally assigned to the Juvenile Court, the Probate & Family Court, the Boston Municipal Court, the Superior Court, the Housing Court, and the District Court, with their full jurisdiction and powers, civil and criminal, “to the extent necessary.” Every time I serve I gain a new appreciation and respect for the challenges faced by my colleagues in these courts. The immediacy of the matters is also striking — not the ordinary “look-back” of a trial, but as close to real time as a court can get.
I have had a late night telephone call, originating in a hospital emergency room, from a college-aged woman seeking a restraining order against her mother who had slashed her with a knife when she came home ten minutes past curfew. What past events, I wondered, had led to that? I wondered also what would happen in the future between the mother and the daughter, who needed her mother’s help with tuition and lacked the money to live alone. There would never be a way for me to know. My order expired the next day, and the case was now in the hands of the local court.
Another was a late night call from a woman whose live-in boyfriend threatened to set fire to her house if she threw him out. She did, and he did, after which he ran into the woods. When I got the call, the fire trucks were still there, and there was a three-town search underway to find the boyfriend. Did they catch him? What happened afterward? Again, no way to know.
Some calls are unbearably sad. I had a young, foreign-born woman, not long in the US, whose husband had beaten her badly during an argument (he had recently lost his job). I issued the restraining order, after which she asked, “Does this mean he can’t come to our daughter’s first birthday party tomorrow?” It did. “I can’t go home judge,” she continued. “Now that I am married my family will not take me back. I have no job of my own. My husband is unemployed. What do I do?” “Be sure to tell the court your situation when you’re there Monday morning,” was all I could say.
I am always glad when my week draws to a close and I return the JRS telephone to the Trial Court office. Life returns to normal. But I’m also grateful for the insight the week has given me into the world outside my court, and the chance to make even a small difference in people’s lives.
Judge Long has served on the Land Court since 2004. He was a partner at K&L Gates LLP before his appointment, and is a graduate of the University of Washington, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University.