by Jonathan S. Williams
Voice of the Judiciary Guest Contributor
The members of the Boston Bar Association know that Massachusetts is in the midst of dramatic change in the administration of justice. Both necessity and opportunity are playing a part. Leaders in all three branches of government are looking more imaginatively at the forms and substance of justice than at any time since the days of Gideon and of the demurrer. An animating principle in the Trial Court’s thought is a strategic focus on the “user experience.” Looking through the public’s eyes demands that we reduce barriers to access, reduce unnecessary delays, and ensure that court action seeks to address underlying causes of legal conflict where possible. Specialty courts, alternative dispute resolution, opioid response, and justice reinvestment reforms are engaging everyone. Technology offers new kinds of opportunities to make court more accessible and efficient. It has dramatically changed law practice, and the public’s appetite for new technologies to engage their justice system electronically has never been greater.
My predecessor Harry Spence wrote last winter about the strength of the unique Massachusetts court governance model put in place in 2012. It pairs Trial Court leadership in myself and Chief Justice of the Trial Court, Paula Carey. She brings deep judicial knowledge and experience leading on matters of judicial policy and innovation. My job is to maintain and increase our administrative capacity to manage change. My varied preparation in North Carolina includes years of private law practice and years of state government administration in the justice field. It is a familiar challenge to take responsibility for finance, human resources and technology at a judicial system’s statewide scale. And over the past two years I was deeply engaged at looking at the future of North Carolina’s courts—and realized that state courts across the nation face the same necessities and opportunities. What drew me here is that the Massachusetts Trial Court today is action-oriented and is already deeply engaged in change.
If you are the managing partner of a large law firm, or manage your own solo practice, you know that few decisions weigh more heavily than workforce and technology investments. Likewise for the courts our workforce and our technology are fundamental to our success.
The work of every court employee is becoming more interesting and more demanding. One reason is the growing diversity of the communities we serve. To meet that need we are recruiting to broaden the diversity of our workforce, and helping new and current employees to expand their cultural appreciation and competency. This is a natural and necessary element of our strategies to reduce the influence of bias—implicit or explicit, whether based in race, ethnicity, religion or gender—in administering justice.
We not only need to do it, but talented potential employees expect us to model and support our core value of equal justice under the law. Today 23% of our employees are from minority groups compared to 24% of the state’s population in the last census. We need to continue targeted outreach in our recruiting so that talented minority candidates don’t overlook the justice system as a personally and professionally rewarding career in public service, and know that no avenue within the justice system is closed to them.
The nature of work in the courts is changing too, meaning we need to recruit for higher skills than ever. Technology will free our employees from much of the drudgery of managing the tide of paper, and allow more time to interact with and serve the public. Our facilities staff supports advanced energy management and other technologies, and maintains both historic and modern architectural properties. Professionalizing Court Security to counter contemporary risks has involved creating a formal academy that graduated its seventh class this summer, and recently achieved national accreditation as a law enforcement training program. We are supporting our workforce overall with more and more training. Working with our unions, we have made continuing education a core piece of Trial Court employment, almost doubling the number of attendees in the past four years.
Caring for our current employees and urgency in recruiting and hiring a talented new generation of employees are both critical to the strength of our justice system.
We all recognize the gap that has opened between court technology and the consumer technology demonstrated in the experiences of retail, finance, and health care. We are playing catchup but have made some wise strategic choices in technology that are beginning to pay off.
The creation and implementation of MassCourts retired 14 separate systems built in-house, designed with different philosophies and architectures dating back to the 1980’s. This change required two tough strategic choices. The first tough choice: stop hiring and retaining staff for continuous custom software development, and instead outsource the new IT case management system to a vendor specialized in court applications. Our in-house staff is focused on the infrastructure, service delivery, and better understanding the evolving needs of the courts. The second tough choice: close down the old systems completely and move all the old data into a completely modern database and middleware platform. Massachusetts chose this harder course and completed the major turn just 20 months ago. MassCourts will continually evolve not only to help manage the work of the courts now but to enable new ways for the courts to get their business done.
E-filing has just begun racing forward toward this future. On the criminal side tens of thousands of Electronic Applications for Criminal Complaint are being e-filed by police this calendar year. Civil e-filing is now rolling out, this year receiving thousands of pleadings and attachments, and more than 4,500 attorneys have enrolled. More and more the bar will be able to save time and client money by e-filing without running to the courthouse and managing snail mail, following the lead of our appellate courts. Inside the courthouse we will look to use e-filings to reduce reliance on paper, and enable judges and litigants to access and work with their documents both remotely and online.
The ability to pay many obligations online is being added to MassCourts over the next few months. It might sound odd at first, but we don’t want you or your clients coming to court to pay an outstanding fine or probation charge. Or more exactly, we want you to pay from wherever is most convenient. We do want you coming to court to accomplish something meaningful to advance your case or issue to resolution. We don’t want you or the public to spend time and money away from work, arranging child or parent care, finding transportation, and standing in security and cashier lines just to make a payment.
Digital recording of court proceedings has been in place for years in all but Superior Court criminal sessions; we have now finished installing or upgrading this technology in almost 300 of 429 courtrooms throughout the Commonwealth in all court departments. This latest generation technology supports two great changes for the bench and the bar: audio recordings can be streamed the next day remotely online, and production of official transcripts for most cases is being cut from 90 days to 30 days.
And over the past several years we have added more and more video connectivity. In the first six months of this year there were approximately 3,000 video events including jail-to-court arraignments, court-to-court probation hearings and emergency protection hearings, and even law office-to-court civil motions hearings to save counsel driving across the state for brief matters.
My confidence in our ability to do these things is immense. I have been visiting courthouses and meeting employees who are eager to share the initiatives they have undertaken. I have met scores of our new employees across all job types, and we are attracting great young people and mid-career movers. I have reviewed workforce diversity statistics and workshop reports that show our employees gaining capacity to work with diverse communities. I have visited a District Court that runs every small claims calendar with no paper files in the courtroom, and I have sat in on a Superior Court session where a judge in one county held court by video for probationers and counsel in another county. I see our e-filing numbers climbing every month. In other words, the action and engagement in change that drew me to the Massachusetts courts is being demonstrated every day.
The Supreme Judicial Court appointed Jonathan Williams to a five year term as Court Administrator for the Massachusetts Trial Court as of May 1, 2017. Williams previously served as the Senior Deputy Director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. He has almost thirty years’ combined experience in government and in private law practice.