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Spotlight report on court clerks reveals system needs public scrutiny

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This weekend, the Globe’s Spotlight Team drew much-needed attention to a little-noticed corner of Massachusetts’ criminal justice system, a “secret court” where a single official can decide, behind closed doors, whether to toss out a case or keep it moving.

The clerks who oversee these sessions, formally known as “show cause” hearings, say they’re an important mechanism for diverting low-level cases out of the overworked criminal justice system.

Why, they ask, should two friends who get in a fight at a barbecue face criminal charges if they’re willing to make up and move on?

Beacon Hill will have to weigh that argument against the very real problems the Spotlight report elucidated — not least of them, the opportunity for powerful people to take advantage of a system that gets little public scrutiny.


Now what? For starters, the state should inject more transparency into the system, and that’s what Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka would like to examine.

At the same time, the state should do more to professionalize the ranks of district and Boston municipal clerks who oversee the “show cause” hearings. The clerks, appointed by the governor and approved by an archaic body known as the Governor’s Council, are often politically connected. And the connected are not always the most qualified.

In 1993, Republican Governor William Weld nominated former state trooper and GOP driver William Lisano as clerk of the Lowell District Court, despite warnings from advocates that Lisano faced abuse allegations from his wife.

He was confirmed. And many years later, he was temporarily removed from his post amid another allegation by his wife. He was found not guilty in 2016.

It’s incumbent on this governor — and future governors — to recognize the sensitive nature of the clerk’s job and avoid political patronage hiring.


Education is also an issue, with some 40 percent of clerks and their assistants lacking law degrees. Daniel J. Hogan, the clerk magistrate for the Boston Municipal Court system’s central division, says clerks’ offices have broad responsibilities that go beyond making determinations in individual cases. That may be true. But given the volume and life-changing nature of the legal decisions made in those offices on a daily basis, the case for more expertise is strong.

On-the-job training is important, too. Clerks get some, but it’s piecemeal. The clerks themselves have advocated for more training, and they should get it.

Massachusetts, as the Spotlight team pointed out, is the only state in the country with these kind of private “show cause” hearings. If we’re going to hold onto them, we’ve got to make sure the people running them are equipped to do the job.