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Patrick signs court hiring overhaul bill

STEVE LEBLANC

Gov. Deval Patrick signed a sweeping overhaul of the state’s court system last Thursday, even as he faulted lawmakers for not adopting one of his key proposals and tweaked the courts for pushing to add extra jobs in the bill.

The new law creates a standard hiring process for all court and probation officers. It comes after an investigative report last year found abuses in hiring and promotions.

Applicants will be required to take an entrance exam and be screened to make sure they meet minimum qualifications. They will then be subjected to a background check and behavioral interviews to make sure they are suited for the job.

The bill also creates a new civilian court administrator responsible for the oversight of the courts.

Even as he signed the bill, Patrick said he’d wished lawmakers had done more.

The bill failed to include his proposal to merge the Probation Department with the Massachusetts Parole Board and bring both under the control of the executive branch.

“I still believe that centralizing parole and probation in a unified agency  —  as is done in more than 25 states  —  will make the departments more accountable, improve supervision and public safety and be more cost effective than the current bifurcated system,” Patrick wrote in a letter accompanying his signing of the bill.

He also said he found it “curious” that top court officials advocated for and were able to include in the bill eight new administrative positions in the courts.

“At the same time the court has recently called for a moratorium on judicial appointments as necessary to save the jobs of current court personnel,” Patrick wrote. “I will listen with interest as the justices reconcile their positions.”

The state’s top justices warned last month that budget cuts approved by lawmakers and signed by Patrick will force them to consolidate or close a dozen courthouses across the state.

Roderick Ireland, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and Robert Mulligan, chief justice for administration and management, had also asked Patrick to consider placing a freeze on judicial and clerk magistrate appointments to help the courts save money.

The budget cuts will “jeopardize the right of every person, guaranteed by the Massachusetts Constitution, to have recourse to the courts and obtain civil and criminal justice ‘completely and without denial, promptly and without delay,’ ” the justices wrote at the time.

Patrick’s chief legal counsel, Mark Reilly, quickly rejected the justices’ call for a moratorium on judicial appointments.

The justices have praised the court overhaul bill, calling it “an effort to improve the administration of justice.”

In April, Ireland took the unusual step of standing alongside House Speaker Robert DeLeo at a Statehouse press conference to endorse the version of the bill that kept the Probation Department under the control of the courts.

Ireland, who was named chief justice by Patrick, publicly broke with Patrick’s consolidation plan, saying judges rely on probation officers to help prevent former inmates from reoffending.

Approval of the bill follows the release last year of an investigative report commissioned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court 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.

Under the legislation, the new civilian Court Administrator will be responsible for reviewing and approving the hiring of non-judicial employees, administering appropriations and expenditures, negotiating contracts and leases, and other administrative functions.

The bill removes unilateral hiring power from the Commissioner of Probation, making hiring within the Probation Department subject to the approval of the Court Administrator.

The bill also requires that any recommendations made on behalf of any applicant be shielded from hiring authorities until the final round of the interview process.

Recommendations submitted in support of candidates who are eventually hired will be considered public records.

In addition, applicants for employment within the executive, legislative and judicial branches will have to disclose in writing the names of all immediate family members who are state employees.

The information will be made public for any applicant who is eventually hired.

Associated Press