HR department key to reform

In December, the Supreme Judicial Court Task Force on Judicial Hiring issued its sixth and final report, completing an exhaustive year-long review of hiring and promotion practices in all of the judicial branch.  These reports mark a major, and potentially transformative, turning point in how the judiciary hires and oversees the thousands of employees in locations all over the Commonwealth charged with delivering fair, equal, and accessible justice.  The action plan findings and recommendations are a blueprint – and a road map – for long overdue reforms designed to ensure the transparency and standards to facilitate the hiring, evaluation, allocation, and promotion of the best and brightest. This transformation is essential to restore and enhance public confidence in the quality, integrity, and efficiency of judicial branch personnel. And the task force placed leadership responsibility squarely on the SJC.

Given the crisis that triggered the creation of the task force, the likelihood of permanently diminished budgets, the advent of the new civilian court administrator, and the need for clear and decisive judicial leadership, the swift urgency of reform – and the road map – are clear.  In the interest of creating greater awareness in the legal community, we hope to highlight some of the critical findings and recommendations of the task force, urge you to read more, invite responses, and to join the task force in supporting a sustained movement for reform – in the interest of justice.

In response to the scathing findings of the so-called Ware Report, a thorough examination of hiring and promotion practices in the state’s Probation Department, the Supreme Judicial Court appointed the task force to investigate hiring in the judicial branch. The task force was mandated to “make recommendations designed to ensure a fair system with transparent procedures in which qualifications of an applicant are the sole criterion in hiring and promotion” in the Probation Department, as well as the entire Trial Court.

The task force members were leaders and managers in the public, private, and non-profit sector, including legal, academic, business, and human resource professionals. What followed was an expansive study of every area of the judicial branch. The task force heard testimony from Chief Justices of Trial Court Departments, clerks, probation officials, union officials, employees, and human resource executives. It met on 29 occasions and sifted through hundreds of pages of policies, procedures, and union contracts.

The task force produced and presented to the SJC six comprehensive action plans for hiring and promotion within all areas of the trial court, including the Probation Department, court officers, administrative employees, and employees of Recorders, Clerks, and Registers of Probate.  Each report has specific sets of reforms which provide a blueprint for future hiring, evaluation, and promotion.  While some of the suggested changes are unique to a particular area, most are core, universal improvements critical to meaningful reform.

From the outset, the tremendous and tireless dedication of many, if not most, of the trial court employees was clear. The hiring freeze over the past several years has decimated many offices and left a few to do the work of many. Undoubtedly, there exists an enormous chasm between the public’s perception that judicial branch hiring is dominated by political patronage, and the reality that most employees are valuable public servants who deliver exceptional quality of justice with very limited resources.

Nevertheless, even internally, there is a sense that the “playing field” is not level or fair when it comes to hiring and promotions.  Many expressed the feeling that even one who was qualified needs a “connection” to be hired or promoted. This perception, true or false, creates a culture that undermines confidence in the process, and must be confronted and remedied, from the top.

The six task force reports lay out a specific, but comprehensive, strategy for change, adopting several well-recognized, evidence-based human resource best-practice principles routinely utilized in private industry: (1) Well-defined mission statements, (2) clear job descriptions, (3) enhancing the applicant pool by broadly posting vacancies using social media, and other resources, (4) objective candidate review ensuring minimum qualifications for all positions, (5) behavioral based interviews, (6) objective candidate assessments rating a candidate’s aptitude and capability to perform the job, and (7) comprehensive applicant tracking system which will allow trial court managers to assess compliance with the reforms.

The task force and its reports make it crystal clear that a modernized, fully-staffed human resources department is THE critical vehicle to implement the reforms and provide meaningful support to managers making hiring, evaluation and promotional decisions.  Currently, the HR department only has the capacity – and responsibility – to provide limited assistance to ensure compliance with procedural and affirmative action mandates.

That said, the task force recognized that managers must still be given the authority to “form their own team.”  As stated in the report’s conclusions, “(t)he (hiring and promotion) process requires a highly professionalized human resources staff of sufficient size and skill to assist all appointing authorities in their hiring and promotion efforts.  That staff need not and should not supplant authority of those empowered to make the ultimate hiring and promotion decisions and it must be nimble enough to supply its advice and assistance effectively and quickly. But it must be much more than a compliance monitor.  It must actively assist in helping all appointing authorities maintain and apply the basic standards and qualifications for hiring and promotion transparently throughout the entire system.”

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, the Supreme Judicial Court has actively and publicly supported the recommendations of each and every one of the task force reports, consistently pledged to lead the reform process, and highlighted its commitment to transparency and establishment of a pervasive merit-based hiring and promotion system.

The Trial Court Administration has likewise repeatedly supported the task force’s proposals for change.  Robert A. Mulligan, the Trial Court’s Chief Justice for Administration and Management has established a 21-member committee, chaired by Juvenile Chief Justice Michael F. Edgerton, to undertake a thorough review of the Trial Court’s personnel policies and procedures.  In making the appointment, the CJAM  stated that the review “will ensure our effective implementation of the recommendations on merit-based hiring and promotion provided in the series of excellent reports submitted by the SJC Task Force on Hiring.”

Now is the time to make these core, universal, and essential changes.  The Supreme Judicial Court, having spoken forcefully about the need for change, must use its leadership to accelerate the normal evolutionary process that efforts at fundamental change often require.  Cultural change is a complicated phenomenon but history teaches us that leadership is an essential ingredient without which fundamental change cannot occur.

The Trial Court must also keep up the momentum. While the process has begun, a great deal more is yet to be done. Labor-management contracts soon will be in negotiation, thus affording an opportune time for the parties to collaborate on the performance-based measures that both have told the task force they deeply desire.

The Legislature has recently acted and is watching to see what happens to with its court reorganization proposals, including establishing a civilian administrator – and so are the governor, the members of the legal community, as well as the consumers of justice.

For this transformation of the culture of this judicial branch organization to succeed, all parties must rise above ego, jurisdictional, and turf battles, go beyond rhetorical flourish, and work collectively to implement a road map that can and will make a difference in the quality of justice.  The task force was born from a crisis, and that crisis provided the opportunity for change.  The urgency for change continues, even if and as that immediate crisis may seem to have subsided.  But, here is the bottom line: Absent a sense of urgency to effect that transformation, a renewed and swelling public demand for change is just one headline away.

By creating the task force, the SJC sent a powerful signal that merit and transparency should be the keys to hiring and promotion.  By embracing the reports, the SJC and the Administrative Offices of the Trial Court leadership have begun to create momentum that, if sustained, can produce the transparent merit based environment demanded and deserved by the public.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
With great admiration for the collective expertise, experience, wisdom and dedication of our task force colleagues, we urge our readers to review our work, evaluate our road map, and join us in mobilizing the legal community to support – and demand – this transformation now.

Scott Harshbarger, a former attorney general and currently senior counsel at Proskauer Rose, is chairman of the task force. Randy S. Chapman, a member of the task force, is a partner at Chapman & Chapman.