Massachusetts Drug Lab Scandal: Why Isn’t Night Court Being Used Here?

Surrounding all of the very necessary legal reactions to the scandal surrounding the Massachusetts state drug lab – centrally, the need to ensure that defendants who were convicted through drug samples handled by lab suspect Annie Dookhan receive the necessary legal review of their cases – one glaring omission seems to be occurring.

The trial court system in Massachusetts has for a long time been bursting at the seams with enormous case loads. The civil dockets are extremely busy, and the criminal dockets grow exponentially every year. To try and process these cases in an average workday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, is already a Herculean task that few people outside the court system can appreciate. Now, out of the blue, this drug lab scandal has fallen in the laps of prosecutors, judges, and the Trial Court administrators who manage the courts every day. It’s been estimated that possibly tens of thousands of cases may need to be re-brought before courts in Massachusetts – most of them in the Boston area and eastern Massachusetts – just to review and handle these drug cases, alone. It’s an incredibly burdensome challenge to manage.

As a Dedham, Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, I see it every day in courts across eastern Massachusetts. The Administrative Office of The Trial Court, which is the state agency that manages the day-to-day operations of the state’s trial courts, has assigned special judges to hear the massive amount of these drug cases that require review and possible re-trial.

But for every hour that is diverted to handling these drug cases, that time and those resources are drained away from hearing other cases that need to be heard. There is simply no way around that: There are only eight hours in each day; only so much time that the court has. If you take from one area, you leave a gap there that has to be filled somehow. A better, more productive way to handle the strain the court system is laboring under is staring at court and legislative officials, but they don’t seem to see it: Night Court.

No, not the NBC comedy hit from the 1980’s. In fact, anything but that. Night court is just what its name implies: Separate, additional sessions of court that handle case loads that can’t be efficiently addressed during normal, 9-5 daytime hours. Not only does Night Court allow for smoother, more rapid and more efficient case processing and management for the court system, but it also allows access to the courts for people who very often have considerable difficulty getting time off from work to appear in court as required. Proving how popular these courts are, approximately 25 states currently use Night Courts in addition to the typical daytime sessions – and they are both enormously efficient and enormously popular. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice was done on just how efficient and productive Night Court can be in achieving more efficient, more rapid access to justice – both criminal and civil. The verdict was loud and clear: Night Court have been a smashing success in the many states they are used in.

Are you listening, Massachusetts legislative and Trial Court officials? And if not, why not?

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