Voice of the Judiciary
When I retired at the end of July of 2014, my judicial service had spanned three court departments and thirty-seven years – thirteen years at the Boston Juvenile Court, seven years at the Appeals Court, and seventeen years at the Supreme Judicial Court, the last four as Chief Justice. A number of people asked me to reflect on my experiences and share what I learned during that time. As I thought about it, I decided that I wanted to give voice to my time as Chief Justice, since that represented such a unique experience.
It has been quite a journey. In my Boston Juvenile Court days, sitting in what was then called the “Old Courthouse,” my courtroom was so cold in the winter that I wore an overcoat and scarf under my robe, and the clerk had to wear gloves to punch the keys of her typewriter. I remember looking up from the ground floor of that building to the upper floors of the great hall, never thinking that one day I would be on those upper floors, in a beautifully rehabbed “John Adams Courthouse,” looking down to the space where I started out. For me, as the first person of color to serve on the oldest appellate court in the western hemisphere, to be appointed its Chief Justice was not only a great honor, but also a heavy responsibility.
It was one thing to serve as an associate justice, but quite another to serve as Chief Justice, and I did not go into it lightly. In fact, when Governor Deval Patrick first wanted to nominate me, I turned the offer down. I knew what the stakes would be for me personally, as a person of color.
Fortunately, Mo Cowan, the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel and later his Chief of Staff, was a persistent advocate, and after many conversations over several weeks, I was persuaded to reconsider and to accept the nomination. As he pointed out to me, it was an historic opportunity, and there was no telling when another opportunity for a person of color to be Chief Justice would occur.
In spite of my reservations, I took the plunge. I have to say that I feared that any mistakes I made would not only reflect on me, but also would make it more difficult for other people of color to follow me. What would be the point of being the first, if there would never be a second? So, for me, doing a good job was critical. That was my goal every day. Looking back, I am pleased with how things worked out and proud of what we accomplished. But there were challenges.
When I started as Chief Justice, the Judiciary was in the midst of a hiring freeze that had gone on for more than two years. Morale was at an all-time low because employees were being asked to do their own work and then take on extra work as a result of vacancies that could not be filled.
On top of that, the Justices had recently received a report from Independent Counsel Paul Ware about hiring and promotion in the Probation Department. The report concluded that the Commissioner of Probation had engaged in corrupt hiring that favored politically connected candidates, and indictments followed. Commissioner John O’Brien and Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Tavares were eventually convicted of mail fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy to engage in racketeering; and Deputy Commissioner William Burke was convicted of conspiracy to engage in racketeering.
At the time, the Governor proposed that the Probation Department be moved from the Judicial to the Executive Branch. On the day I was nominated to be Chief Justice, even before I was sworn in, I was asked by the media about my position on moving Probation to the Executive Branch. I had to respectfully disagree with the Governor before my first day as Chief Justice. As it turned out, the Governor did not give up on this idea, and made the same proposal the following year, which meant that I had to publicly disagree with him a second time. Currently, the Probation Department remains under the authority of the Judicial Branch.
When I began as Chief Justice, the judiciary’s relationship with the Legislature was “cool,” to say the least, and our budget was significantly below what we needed just to stay afloat. We faced the likelihood of reducing court sessions, laying off employees, or a combination of those difficult options. To state the obvious, those were challenging times.
In my first Annual Address, which I gave in October of 2011, I indicated that I had three main objectives as head of the third branch of government: first, to build bridges with the courts’ constituents, including the Legislature; second, to make the court system more user-friendly and responsive to the public; and third, to educate the public, particularly our youth, about how the legal system operates.
From my first day as Chief, reaching out to the Legislature was a major priority. We organized two first-of-their-kind programs – an orientation program for new members of the Legislature, and a similar one for legislative staff. I visited regularly with Legislative Leadership, as well as the rank and file members of the House and Senate, sometimes spending several hours a week at the State House. We worked with the Speaker on the legislation creating the new position of the Court Administrator to bring professional management expertise to the Judicial Branch. The Justices also adopted the recommendations for transparency in hiring and promotion practices in the “Harshbarger” action plan. And I met regularly with the Governor and his staff to share information, exchange ideas, and to advocate for proper funding for the courts.
Through our efforts we were able to secure an adequate budget to fund the work of the court system, and we have been able to fill some of the critical positions. Our efforts also resulted in a pay raise for judges and clerks – the first in eight years. Based on my regular visits to courthouses across the Commonwealth to thank the staff for their work, I can see that morale of court staff has noticeably improved.
We also built bridges with the business community, meeting with the CEOs of the biggest businesses to discuss the court system, emphasizing the importance of the Business Litigation Session of the Superior Court. We described how it was in their best interests that courts have proper resources in order to ensure speedy and fair resolutions of their legal issues. We pointed out that it was also in their employees’ best interests to have a legal system that would provide speedy and fair resolution to their personal legal problems, because the sooner they were resolved, the more “present” the employees would be at work.
We enlisted support from the bar associations, to encourage their members to advocate for adequate funding for the judiciary and to share information on court initiatives. The Justices partner yearly with the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Boston Bar Association, and others, to “Walk to the Hill,” as part of Court Advocacy Day. Our collaboration with the Bar means a great deal to the members of the Judiciary.
We endeavored to make the courts more user-friendly as well as more transparent to the public. Recognizing that every day more than 42,000 people come to our courthouses (based on the FY2010 Annual Report on the Commonwealth of the Massachusetts Court System), and more and more self-represented litigants, we are attempting to demystify the legal process. Help desks or information kiosks were initiated in various courts to assist the public as they enter court houses. We also opened several courts for extended hours so that, in some cases, litigants could resolve their cases without having to miss a day of work.
Our Access to Justice Initiatives provide services and support to litigants without access to legal representation in civil cases, some of which concern the most basic necessities of life. And through specialty courts we are able to deal with substance abuse and drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, and veterans’ issues.
Another bridge we began to build was with our law schools. This year we held the first “Summit” with the deans of Massachusetts law schools. Our roundtable discussion covered many issues involving legal education in Massachusetts and ways to assist graduates to be more prepared for the “real world” of lawyering upon graduation.
I hope to continue to play a part in the lives of students, especially those at risk, even after I retire. This summer I again led the Judicial Youth Corps (JYC), the SJC’s program for high school students, as I have for the past twenty-four years. With the wonderful support of the Massachusetts Bar Association, we expanded the JYC to both Worcester (in 2009) and Springfield (in 2014). At this point we have more than 700 alums of the JYC. Some are now lawyers, teachers, business professionals, and we even have one judge.
One aspect of the JYC that I am especially proud of is the role that court employees play each year. Each of our students has a volunteer supervisor who works with the student the entire summer. They do not get a single extra penny for doing this, and they do it for just one reason – to help a kid. And many of the employees have volunteered each and every year for the past twenty-four years. Paul Liacos, a former Chief Justice of the SJC, was the visionary who founded the program back in 1990. I know he would be proud.
As I neared retirement in June of 2014, I was appointed Distinguished Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern University, where I have been an adjunct professor for the past thirty-six years. I joined the faculty full-time at the end of August. Among the courses I will be teaching is one that I am developing called, “The Third Branch of Government.” It will examine the interplay of the judiciary with the legislative and executive branches, as well as with external entities like business and the media.
One part of the course will be to look at the “theory” of how government is supposed to work. But another part will focus on the “reality” of government, and will look at how things actually work in the real world. And in that part of the course I hope to take my students on the road to see how government actually functions, from meeting with key players in all three branches, to observing the various processes of the branches unfold.
I hope to show my students what my experiences as Chief Justice have helped me to understand, which is that even though the three branches of government are “separate, independent and co-equal,” they are also all interdependent and connected with each other. For the third branch of government to perform its function properly, it must have the support and assistance of the other two branches of government. And without the support of the other two branches, the third branch will almost certainly be unable to provide the services that the public needs and expects in a timely, efficient, and fair way.
And with that, I will close. As I do, it bears repeating that my serving as Chief Justice these past four years has been the highest honor and privilege. But I did not do it alone. What made leading this Branch possible for me, from my very first day as Chief, was the tremendous support I received from my colleagues and staff. I am grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way. It has meant so much to me. I extend my best wishes to all in future years. All the best!!
Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland serves as a Distinguished Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. He served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts from 2010 to 2014. He received his B.A., 1966, from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania; his J.D., 1969, from Columbia Law School; an L.L.M. degree, 1975, from Harvard Law School; and his Ph.D., 1998, Northeastern University.