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Mass. House approves bill to overhaul court system

STEVE LEBLANC

The Massachusetts House unanimously approved a bill last week designed to overhaul the state court system in the wake of revelations about abuses in the hiring and promotions practices at the court-administered Probation Department.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, would create a new civilian court administrator responsible for the general oversight of the courts, including requesting appropriations and approving contracts and leases.

The chief justice for administration and management would still be responsible for overseeing the judicial calendar and administering disciplinary actions.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

DeLeo said the bill would help restore public faith in the courts and the embattled Probation Department, following the release of a damaging report commissioned by the Supreme Judicial Court last year.

“By passing this reorganization bill, the House has committed to bring a more transparent, efficient system of justice to the people of Massachusetts,” DeLeo said in a statement following the 152-0 vote.

Gov. Deval Patrick has argued that under the bill, offenders would still be released to a fragmented, bifurcated system split between the judicial and executive branches. Patrick has filed his own bill to overhaul the courts.

To make the hiring process more accountable, DeLeo’s bill requires job applicants to pass a written test before they could be interviewed for a position. If hired, they would have to disclose any immediate family members who are also state employees.

All letters of recommendation, including those from lawmakers, would be shielded from those making hiring decisions until after an applicant has passed the written test.

If an applicant is hired, those letters would be made public. While all recommendations would have to be made in writing, the bill carries no specific sanctions for violators, although they could still be subject to state ethics laws.

The bill, which passed after little debate last Wednesday, rejects Patrick’s proposal to merge the Probation Department with the Massachusetts Parole Board and bring both under the control of the executive branch.

Patrick has argued that merging the two into a new Department of Re-entry and Community Supervision would guarantee that all former inmates are released to the supervision of a single state agency.

Thirty-seven other states have combined the two functions, according to the administration.

A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray said the Senate will take up the bill this week, keeping with Murray’s commitment to get a bill to Patrick’s desk before the Senate takes up its version of the state budget.

The Massachusetts Bar Association hailed last Wednesday’s vote, saying the House bill will help professionalize Trial Court management.

“This change will place Massachusetts where it should be, as a national model for an innovative and effective court system,” MBA President Denise Squillant said in a statement.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland took the unusual step of endorsing DeLeo’s bill.

“We thought if there was going to be legislation, we wanted to have a voice in the shaping of that legislation,” said Ireland at a joint appearance with the Winthrop Democrat at a Statehouse press conference last month.

Ireland said he supports keeping the Probation Department under the umbrella of the court system, saying judges rely on probation officers for their advice and counsel in helping prevent former inmates from re-offending.

Judges typically try to steer clear of political fights between the governor and Legislature.

The bill stems from an investigative report commissioned by the SJC last year that found abuses in the Probation Department’s hiring processes.

That report by independent counsel Paul Ware said there apparently was “an understanding” between certain legislators and former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien that generous appropriations for the department were linked to O’Brien’s willingness to give jobs to applicants recommended by the lawmakers.

O’Brien was suspended and later resigned.

Associated Press