Massachusetts House approves bill to overhaul governance of state’s judiciary

The Massachusetts judiciary may be set for the biggest overhaul since the Court Reorganization Act of 1978 established the current system and named a “chief justice for administration and management” (CJAM) to serve as the state court administrator. Yesterday the House unanimously approved HB 3395 which would revamp the state judiciary’s governance structure. According to the Boston Globe, the impetus for the change was the Probation Department hiring/promotion scandals under review over the last several years. (I discussed the legislative plan to remove Probation from the judiciary here).

The 1978 act made the CJAM’s position perhaps unique among all state court administrators. Whereas most served at the pleasure their chief justice or supreme court and were not judges, the CJAM was required to be a trial judge and held a five year fixed term. While “subject to the superintendence power of the supreme judicial court “, the CJAM could only be removed from office by the supreme judicial court for “malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance” (MGL ch. 211B, § 6 & § 9).

HB 3395 renames the CJAM the “chief justice of the trial court” (CJTC) transfers much of the CJAM’s power to a new “court administrator” and deputy court administrators for each division of the trial court. In sum, “business functions” would be handled by the court administrator, but “judicial management” by the CJTC.

It creates an office of court management under the court administrator. Both the CJTC and the newly created court administrator would serve 5 year terms, but the restriction on removal only for “malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance” was removed from the provisions related to the CJAM/CJTC. Interestingly, the new court administrator would be specifically prohibited from being a judge and would be required to have significant leadership experience in the fields of management and finance.

HB 3395 provides the CJTC “shall have general superintendence of the judicial policy of the trial court [currently administration of the trial court], including, without limitation, the improvement of the administration of such courts and the securing of their proper and efficient administration” but that the court administrator is “administrative head of the trial court of the commonwealth [a distinction held currently by the CJAM].”

Although the currently CJAM approved of the plans outlined in HB 3395, the bill anticipates possible conflicts between the new court administrator and the CJAM/CJTC:

The chief justice of the trial court and the court administrator shall endeavor to resolve between themselves all differences or disputes they may have regarding the management and administration of the trial court. If, after due discussion and collaboration, they are unable to do so, either may submit the issue to the chief justice of the supreme judicial court who, after determining why the chief justice and the court administrator were unable to resolve the issue, shall promptly decide it. The decision of the chief justice of the supreme judicial court shall be final and binding.

Coverage and commentary about the proposal are available from the Boston Globe, the Boston Bar Association, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly‘s The Docket.

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