The Administration of Justice in a Changing World

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  by John A. Bello

   Voice of the Judiciary

My appointment as Court Administrator took place amid several crises –a raging pandemic and a racial reckoning, as well as a charged political discourse across the country.  While these crises affected daily lives at the courthouse and at home, the court system saw them as an opportunity to learn about individual differences as we advanced our systems to improve how courts worked during the pandemic to ensure accessibility for the public.  The tremendous challenges we now face cannot be handled by any one person, but as members of the court system, we can use all of our experience  to move the Trial Court to the next level.

The Trial Court family has been tested by the ongoing pandemic but that has not slowed the progress we are making as a system.  Our judges, elected officials, and staff have given beyond their best to ensure that we continue delivering justice.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their many sacrifices during the pandemic.  Judges, Clerks and Registers Offices, Probation, Security and Facilities staff have gone above and beyond to keep our doors open.  I would also like to thank those who partnered with us along the way to keep the justice system running.  It was not an easy task but collaborating broadly made it possible.

Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and I have an ambitious agenda that is outlined in our Strategic Plan 3.0.   I am confident that we can accomplish these goals by being inclusive and recognizing the many contributions made at all levels of this organization.  Transparency and collaboration with internal and external stakeholders will help us focus and deliver on the important work we face today and moving forward.  In my experience, collaboration always results in a better solution to any issue.

Technology Enables Access to Justice

Where do we start?  We must build on the Court’s progress during the pandemic.  Today, we find ourselves in a better place technologically than we were in a year ago, which expands our options for serving the public and makes it easier for those who work and practice in our courts.  As devasting as it has been, the pandemic has accelerated our strategic initiatives.  We must keep this momentum going as we recover from the most challenging impacts of the pandemic and resume business in a “new normal.”  Our staff has demonstrated resilience, creativity, and commitment, and as leaders we must ensure that we support them along the way.

Access to justice and the court user experience are our top priorities as we aim to have systems in place to deliver justice for ALL.  Concurrently, we need to better understand how users experience the system and to act swiftly on issues raised by users and by our staff.

Investment in technology at this historic juncture is critical.  We must provide judges and staff with the tools they need to do their jobs in a digital world.  eCourts must be our collective priority along with sufficient staffing so we can modernize how we work and serve the public.  A $164 million IT Bond Bill now in the legislature sets a roadmap for the investments needed to build a 21st century court system.  This bond bill represents an access to justice imperative to ensure that members of the public have access to our courts – whether in person or from home.

During the pandemic, virtual registries were created, as eFiling and eNoticing expanded to modernize access to justice.  For example, the Probate Court developed a pilot with the Department of Revenue and, since October, has heard 300 child support cases per week via Zoom, and has heard 1,000 uncontested divorce cases using the same method.  Post-pandemic, we will build upon these innovative, user-friendly solutions that positively impact thousands of lives.

Racial Justice Requires New Mindset

As a justice system, we also must deal head-on with racial justice issues and the problem of systemic racism.  We need to be able to have conversations affecting people of color and develop system-wide practices that recognize and combat racism.  The Trial Court cannot tolerate injustice of any kind and we are fully committed to this work.  Court leaders must ensure that the system treats court staff, attorneys and the public with dignity and respect.  As individuals, we must broaden our mindset and continue learning about others, engaging constructively to ensure that everyone is represented at the table.  Representation does matter.

This is a personal issue for me.  I came from the Dominican Republic 30 years ago to face the challenges of bias and discrimination from some, as well as support and encouragement from others.  In my experiences at the Trial Court, I have witnessed how diverse representation can create an inclusive, supportive organization that can better address the needs of colleagues and the public we serve. 

The unsettling events of 2020-2021, including the passing of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, left many with no place to turn with their distress.  The Trial Court established a Trauma Task Force, which helped support those needing assistance on how best to deal with the uncertain world around them.  We facilitated many discussions regarding the pandemic, racial reckoning, and political unrest nationwide.  As co-chair of this highly committed group, I hope to expand training to help judges and staff deal with the traumatic events to which they are regularly exposed.  

We plan to engage the broader justice community to help us not only create a trauma-informed workforce, but also a trauma-informed justice system.  We have engaged with One Mind at Work, the Institute for Health Recovery, as well as Riverside Trauma Center to ensure our system has the resources available to understand and deal with trauma and mental health issues.

Organizational Development Through Skills and Data

Post-pandemic, we will refocus on fostering a high performing organization with clear goals and expectations, as well as providing our staff with career development opportunities through training and networking.  Our Human Resources department and Judicial Institute are finding new ways to support individual skill-building and advancement.  Technology again is key.

Over the years, I have relied heavily on data to make informed decisions.  Data quality and consistency are essential for the Trial Court to move forward.  Accurate data allows local courts to assess their work and provides the public with the tools to help understand what courts do and why.  Accurate data entry and collection represent another critical issue for the Trial Court and our justice partners.  Together, we must find new ways to aggressively tackle this challenge. 

There is much to accomplish but I know that with continued support from Trial Court staff, elected officials, judges, and the Bar we will expand on the current momentum.  I want to understand your challenges and hear your ideas for improving the system.  I look forward to building relationships with partners in justice across the state to collaboratively deliver on the Trial Court’s one mission: Justice with Dignity and Speed.

The Supreme Judicial Court appointed John A. Bello to a five-year term as Court Administrator for the Massachusetts Trial Court as of March 1, 2021. In 2017, Bello became Associate Court Administrator after serving as the Director of Facilities Management and Capital Planning since 2013.