The Delivery of Justice

The Delivery of Justice

By Rev. J. Donald Monan, SJ

The Massachusetts Court system traces its origins to the establishment of its Supreme Judicial Court, the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the court system annually summons 1.2 million jurors, employs a staff of over 8,000 persons, and operates with a budget of $500 million exclusive of capital expenditures, to deal with the million-plus cases entered each year for adjudication.

Chief Justice Marshall last year appointed me as chair of an eight-person committee to provide an independent assessment not of the quality of judicial decision-making, but of the quality of management throughout the court system. In addition to individuals with experience in the Legislature or related court systems, three committee members had served as chief executives of complex institutions that had moved from near-bankruptcy to robust health. As the committee began its work, McKinsey & Co., the global management consulting firm, volunteered to provide us with staff commensurate with the importance of the work.

Despite the venerable history of the court, it was not until 1978 that what had been a collection of county and local courts gave way to a seven-department Trial Court with a central administrative office, salaries standardized for all judges and funding provided by the State Legislature. Between the mid-1970s and 2002, however, there had been no less than nine separate studies by bar associations, legislative committees and research institutes dedicated to improving one or other facet of management of the court system.

Work of the committee fell into four distinct phases: thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the previous studies regarding the courts' functioning; data gathering from court personnel regarding the ongoing validity of managerial shortcomings cited in earlier studies; extensive face-to-face interviews with some 150 judges, clerks, probation officers, attorneys, bar associations, clerical staff, union representatives; and extensive visits by committee members and McKinsey representatives to courthouses in all seven of the Trial Court divisions.

As understanding of the courts' managerial systems and practices grew through this period of intensive investigation, the committee began to focus its attention on clearly identifiable sources of managerial problems and to debate at bimonthly plenary meetings how best to address them.

The signs of poor management most obvious to the public are delays in case resolution, rapidly escalating costs, apparent inequities in the distribution of resources to courts in different parts of the state, costly and unnecessary duplication of functions in the handling of cases and a generalized lack of concern for service to those who use the courts.

While the committee recognized the validity of each of these concerns, we regarded them as symptoms rather than fundamental causes of the courts' managerial problems. From conversation and from careful observation, it was clear to the committee that the basic causes of the managerial confusion that pervaded the judiciary from the individual courthouse to the overall system, were: an ineffective leadership style that has its counterpart in highly ambiguous, confused definitions of lines of authority with a resultant uncertainty as to who is in charge at any level; a lack of any process or organ for managerial goal-setting or of any measurable standards for court size or staff size, for cost-effectiveness, for productivity, or of acceptable job performance; and a lack of any meaningful budget system that allows for effective resource requests or resource allocation on the basis of genuine need.

The bulk of the report attempts to spell out these problems in convincing detail and provides careful steps for remedying them. The committee realizes that in a sense, its recommendations are fundamentally managerial common sense, but it realizes as well that implementation will call for generous commitment and cooperation on the part of many. For court personnel, addressing the first two problems involves nothing less than a change of culture. "The judges' culture, like that of the physician, demands time-consuming attention to individuals and to the qualitative differences among them. A managerial culture, by contrast, employs quantitative methods to deal effectively with large and complex sets of constituents...The irony is that the larger and the more complex the court system, the more its quality of service to individuals will depend on its assimilation of a managerial culture to assure prompt, efficient, cost-effective justice to all."

Only the Legislature, however, can redraw the unworkable lines of authority and the resource allocation process that previous legislatures have laid out to define who exercises managerial leadership of the individual courthouse and of the court system.

Rev. J. Donald Monan, SJ, is chancellor of Boston College. A copy of the report on Massachusetts courts is available at


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