Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

The Administration of the Trial Courts: The Administrator’s Perspective

July 24, 2023
| Summer 2023 Vol. 67 #3

By Thomas Ambrosino

I began my tenure as Trial Court Administrator at the end of January 2023. I am excited to join the Trial Court because I see it as an opportunity to make significant progress in improving the delivery of justice to court users. I have a strong and committed partner in Trial Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Locke.

My background is not steeped in court management. Instead, I have spent most of my career leading municipalities, where the delivery of essential services to the general public timely and respectfully was a key part of my mission. I spent twelve years as mayor in Revere and another seven and a half as city manager in Chelsea, guiding that community through COVID. In both positions, I stressed to my workforce the need to remember always that public employees are here for one reason—to serve the public. This “service first” mentality is just as necessary in this position and critical to accomplishing the Trial Courts’ overriding goal of providing justice with dignity and speed to all.

Making change to an institution as large and as tradition-bound as the Trial Court is not easy. To do so, one must have a narrow focus: identify a few key priorities and work diligently to make progress on them.

As Trial Court Administrator, I have identified three key priorities:

  • Take full advantage of the opportunity provided by the 2022 IT Bond Bill to complete my predecessors’ efforts in technology and make the system a true “Digital Court”;
  • Ensure that our courts are welcoming, accessible, and unintimidating to all users; and
  • Work closely with the Legislature and Governor Healey to fund capital improvements to our courthouses.

The Digital Courthouse
I am aware of the skepticism among the Bar and our own workforce about technological advances, but we have reason for optimism.

We have outstanding leadership in our Information Technology department, led by Chief Information Officer Steve Duncan, who joined us from Harvard University. Steve and his team are committed to, and capable of, implementing a visionary yet realistic plan for technology upgrades in each of our ninety-four court buildings. Court leadership, our judges, and staff are aligned and committed to becoming a Digital Court, and we have funding to make this possible.

The IT Bond Bill approved by the Legislature and signed by then-Governor Baker in August 2022 authorizes over $165 million for technology upgrades for the judicial branch over the next five-to-seven years, allowing for the judiciary to plan strategically for important upgrades. Although the IT plan under this bond bill does not include replacement of our electronic case-management system, MassCourts and our physical structures will be improved by:

  • Investing in foundational technology, such as network infrastructure, resulting in fewer interruptions;
  • Adding eFile, eAccess, eDelivery, and interactive text, allowing for cases to be handled digitally from beginning to end;
  • Engineering upgrades to reduce significantly the time to fix bugs and add new features;
  • Installing modern physical security systems, providing for safer courthouses; and
  • Furnishing each of our buildings with public Wi-Fi and digital signage.

Some of these improvements are already underway. Network infrastructure upgrades are ongoing in many courthouses and Wi-Fi has been activated in five courthouses. We hope to complete installation in at least a quarter of our courthouses by the end of this calendar year.

Access to Justice
Access to justice is particularly important to me. As city manager in Chelsea, I witnessed residents truly struggling with access to the court system. An overwhelming majority of residents do not speak English as their first language, almost half of the population is foreign born, and many are undocumented. I heard firsthand from many constituents that they found the court system challenging to navigate and often intimidating.

I have a passion to change this and am confident that we will succeed because there is a real commitment, both within the judicial system and among elected officials, to make it happen.

In the pending FY24 budget currently in the Legislature’s Conference Committee, there are three proposals aimed at improving access to justice:

  • The House approved funding for fifty-two additional full-time staff interpreters. Although this is not in the Senate version of the budget, we hope that consensus will emerge to help us increase full-time staff interpreters to better meet the needs of limited English users.
  • The House and Senate have approved funding to add staffing to our Court Service Centers to expand their hours to every day rather than only twice a week. These Centers are a lifeline to self-represented litigants, helping them navigate an unfamiliar judicial landscape.
  • The House and Senate have approved funding for eight new Probate & Family Court judges, which is an access to justice effort because over 80% of cases in the Probate Court have at least one self-represented litigant. Ensuring that we have enough judges in that court to expedite decision-making benefits everyone.

In addition to these funding requests, we have commenced an internal reorganization so that access to justice issues have a higher priority within the Trial Court. The new Office of Access, Diversity and Fairness launched in July, and a new Chief of the Office will advance all access to justice initiatives within the Trial Court and report directly to Chief Justice Locke and me.

Capital Projects
Addressing the deficient physical structures in which the Trial Court operates requires far more capital than the Commonwealth can reasonably expect to finance given competing capital demands throughout state government. But in the past few months, we have made good progress advancing major renovations and new buildings in some of our Gateway Cities. The new FY24–28 Capital Plan released by the Governor in late June includes $106 million for design of a new Hall of Justice complex in Springfield, full funding for the new courthouse in Quincy, funding for the start of a new regional justice center in Framingham, and $42.5 million for major renovations to the Lynn District Court. This is great news for the court system and hopefully an indication of a growing collaborative approach that will help us address the backlog of capital needs throughout the Trial Court.

There is a lot more that I hope to accomplish in the Trial Court in addition to these three priorities, including working intentionally to improve the diversity within our workforce, increasing training and advancement opportunities for our staff, and improving efficiency in our operations. For these and other issues, I am still in the listening and learning stage. But my process and method for addressing all issues are the same: I am committed to working collaboratively with our staff, clerks, judges, elected officials, and important stakeholders like the Bar to identify and implement practical solutions.

I pledge to do all that I can to fulfill our shared vision that every person who walks through our doors, regardless of personal characteristics or economic circumstances, is treated with respect, and that we in the Trial Court deliver justice with dignity and speed.

Mr. Ambrosino began serving as Administrator for the Trial Courts in January 2023. He previously served as City Manager for the City of Chelsea, and as Mayor in the City of Revere.