Confidential evaluations of the state's 370 trial judges show that most do their jobs well but that a few must undergo a new ''judicial enhancement" program to remedy problems that range from short tempers to bad writing, the chief justice of the state's highest court announced yesterday.
In a speech widely regarded as her annual address on the state of the judiciary, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall told the yearly conference of the Massachusetts Bar Association that the evaluation of judges is nearly complete. The judges were graded by 5,800 lawyers, more than 4,000 jurors, and court staff members.
Although the results are confidential under the law, Marshall said the ''overwhelming consensus" is that state judges are fair, respectful, and capable.
''They are appropriately prepared, work hard, and in most cases issue their opinions and orders in a timely manner," Marshall told more than 200 lawyers and judges at the Marriott Copley Place Hotel.
But she acknowledged that the performance of a small number of judges is ''deficient." As a result, she said, Robert Mulligan, the judiciary's chief justice for administration and management, has begun a training program to help poor performers make the grade.
''Mandatory judicial enhancement will provide these judges with the tools they need to address their professional shortcomings," Marshall said. ''We will act. You will see the results."
Marshall gave few details on the enhancement program, but she offered a sketch of what it might entail: a judge who needs a better grasp of the law might be required to take continuing legal education courses; ill-tempered judges might have to take classes to improve their behavior; those who produce lackluster written opinions might have to take writing courses.
Marshall declined in an interview to specify how many judges had gotten low grades. But she said the results of the evaluations closely tracked a similar online evaluation by the Massachusetts Bar Association, whose members gave state judges a 92 percent favorability rating.
Though the evaluations were mandated by the Legislature in 1992, greater judicial accountability was a key recommendation two years ago of a special commission headed by the Rev. J. Donald Monan, the Boston College chancellor, which concluded that Massachusetts courts were sluggish and inefficient, and that ''management of the judiciary is uneven at best and oftentimes dysfunctional."
Each of the justices who head the state's seven trial court departments have endorsed the mandatory program for judges with inadequate performances.
Although the courts have periodically evaluated judges, it was not until Marshall became chief justice five years ago that the SJC began a program to make sure all judges were assessed by the same standards, said Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the high court. Every judge will be reevaluated every few years.
Some members of the legal community have said the evaluations should be public, particularly in light of controversies such as the public outrage over Superior Court Judge Maria I. Lopez's sentence of probation in 2000 for a man convicted of kidnapping and trying to rape an 11-year-old Dorchester boy.
But judges and lawyers in the audience yesterday said that the law requires the evaluations be confidential and that publicly identifying poorly performing judges was not the point.
''I think what's important from my standpoint, is that if a judge needs help in a particular area, that help is going to be available," said Superior Court Judge Paul A. Chernoff. He said that many of his brethren have to handle civil and criminal cases even though they specialized in only one area of the law. ''Some of us are better at some things than at others," Chernoff said.
David W. White-Lief, a Boston personal-injury lawyer, had no problem with the evaluations being confidential and was confident that badly performing judges will get the training they need.
''By and large, the judiciary is excellent and the few small problems can be handled without revealing the [results] of the evaluations," he said.
Marshall used her speech to urge the Legislature and Governor Mitt Romney to give judges pay raises, saying salaries have remained the same since she became chief justice and that low salaries have a ''corrosive effect on our entire system of justice."
''No one is calling for judges to receive rock-star salaries," she said. ''But something is terribly awry when Massachusetts ranks 46th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in judicial salaries, as adjusted for the cost of living."
The base salary for Massachusetts trial judges is $112,777.
Marshall also discussed the judiciary's progress on other fronts. The criminal courts have recently implemented time standards for moving cases through the system and relieving mammoth backlogs, she said.
In addition, she said, the SJC's oral arguments will be broadcast live on the Internet for the first time, starting as early as next month.
Speaking about her own court, Marshall said that when she became chief justice, five of the SJC's seven members had retired within 18 months of each other and many legal observers wondered how their successors would fare.
''Now we know," she said, saying that the four most recent justices -- Francis X. Spina, Judith A. Cowin, Martha B. Sosman, and Robert J. Cordy -- have together authored more than 400 opinions, including the landmark 2003 decision legalizing gay marriage and a decision earlier this year that maintained the state's funding formula for public education.
And Marshall noted that the court has issued more dissenting and concurring opinions in recent years. ''Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once wrote that, 'Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard,' " Marshall said. ''There is no graveyard on the Supreme Judicial Court."