MA High Court Shields Trial Courts From Civil Rights Accountability

Supreme Judicial Court Declines To Hold Trial Court Accountable On Employment Practices Under Public Records Law

U.S. Attorney’s Office Reportedly Seeking Same Records In Ongoing Civil Rights Probe

In a decision issued today, Massachusetts’ highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court, declined a request by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice to rule that documents showing the demographic make-up of the workforce of the Massachusetts Trial Court system are public records under the Commonwealth’s Public Records Law.  The decision comes on the heels of reports that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston is actively investigating the Trial Court for civil rights violations and seeking the same information directly from the Court.

“The Trial Court’s lack of transparency, particularly on issues of racial equity, is highly troubling,” said Oren M. Sellstrom, Director of Litigation of the Lawyers’ Committee.  “If anything, today’s decision only highlights the need for outside intervention to ensure that the court system is accountable to the public and that employees’ civil rights are protected.”

The Lawyers’ Committee filed its original request with the Court Administrator in June 2016, acting on reports of inequitable employment practices in the Trial Court.  The request specifically asked for documents concerning the demographics, promotion process, and hiring practices of the Trial Court Security Department.  The Trial Court responded one week later, stating that information concerning the racial and gender make-up of Court employees is not covered by the Public Records Law.

In December 2016, the Lawyers’ Committee filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that such records are indeed covered by the law.  A day after the lawsuit was filed, the Trial Court began releasing some of the requested records to the Lawyers’ Committee.  However, it maintained that it was doing so voluntarily, and that the public is not entitled to such records under the Public Records Law.  Today’s ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court holds that because the Lawyer’s Committee’s original request has been fulfilled, there is no need to rule on the broader issue of whether any future such requests must be complied with under the Public Records Law.

“There is a strong public interest in ensuring that this type of information is accessible on an ongoing basis,” stated Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee.  He pointed out that the records “voluntarily” released by the Trial Court revealed significant inequities within the Court, including for example that less than 4% of management positions in the Trial Court Security Department are held by women of color, and revealing employment practices that contribute to these disparities.  “The public has a right to know this information, and Trial Court employment practices should not be shrouded in secrecy,” Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal added.

Recent media reports indicate that federal investigators are currently investigating potential civil rights abuses in the Trial Court and have requested demographic data directly from court officials.  A similar federal civil rights probe of Boston Latin School led to wide-reaching reforms.  “Today’s ruling demonstrates that the Trial Court is another institution that cannot effectively reform itself without outside intervention,” said Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal.

Read more about this important case in the Boston Globe.