Vision, Function, and the Kitchen Sink: The Evolving Role of the State Court Administrator

How has the role of the state court administrator changed over the years?  In addition to handling their day-to-day administrative responsibilities and other duties that come their way, state court administrators must also have a vision of how the justice system could be improved.

Gregory J. Linhares
State Court Administrator, Missouri

So, What Is a State Court Administrator?

When I was asked to examine the role of the state court administrator for this edition of Future Trends, I agreed immediately before realizing what I had gotten myself into. What seemed a painless exercise at first became much more difficult when I delved into documents such as the A History of the Conference of State Court Administrators (Fetter, 2005), COSCA’s “Position Paper on Effective Judicial Governance and Accountability” (2001), and Dan Becker’s and Hon. Christine Durham’s excellent “A Case for Court Governance Principles” (2011). These works do an excellent job of describing the history of our profession, the need for court governance, and the ways in which court governance can be most effectively used. Therefore, what purpose is there to my writing if these works are already out there?

In searching for that purpose, I decided that my article could not add much to the discussion of governance. I began to think simply about the job itself and what I do every day, or as the colorful former Colorado state court administrator Harry O. Lawson said in his 1978 remarks to the Conference of State Court Administrators, “Why the hell do you do it?”

I hope that this exploration of what state court administrators do and why we do it will help anyone at any level of court administration to glean something, even if it is simply a nod of acknowledgment. Perhaps you have had a similar experience to one I had during my first week on the job, when a senior staff member—knowing my background to be primarily legislative and not administrative—provided me a list of 33 things for which I was ultimately responsible. I believe he thought I would find the list daunting, and he was right, but in hindsight I think the list was both too short and too long. The list was too short in that the number of items I am responsible for approving or signing greatly exceeds 33; but the list was too long in that—when evaluating the role of the position as opposed to the governance structure—the fundamental roles of state court administrators across the nation are really rather quite similar, despite many disparate structures.

Upon reviewing the history of court administration from 1950 to the present, it is clear to me that despite our various governance structures, we are leaving behind our “Pre-Cambrian” explosion, as described by Mr. Lawson and further detailed in Fetter (2005), wherein the various roles of a state court administrator were tried on, removed, regrown, and finally perfected. We are now entering a period where state court administrators work with each other and other justice system stakeholders—especially our counterpart trial court administrators—to perfect performance in the common roles we all share, regardless of governance. In short, we must be visionaries, we must manage basic functions, and we must be prepared to manage the unforeseen because it has nowhere else to go: vision, function, and the kitchen sink.

State Court Administrator

Vision

When it comes to the long-term health and success of a state judiciary, few, if any, are as well positioned as a state court administrator to assess needs and develop ideas on how to meet them. Unlike other positions in any state judiciary—including supreme court or judicial council members, who, of course, must also do their day jobs—a state court administrator’s position is a global one. As such, state court administrators must be strategists and project managers, if for no other reason than it is not anyone else’s job to think in those terms. Without a vision of how to improve long-term service to the state’s citizens, grounded in the reality of a well-thought-out project plan, state court administrators will be left in a reactionary mode, attempting to put out fires rather than guiding future development. And as anyone who works in court administration knows, there are plenty of fires to put out without creating new ones internally.


The Strategist

In every job, someone has to ask the tough questions. In a statewide judiciary, this is the job of the state court administrator perhaps more than anyone else. State court administrators may not have the authority to take these tough questions and turn them into new policy answers. But a state court administrator should be making the statewide judicial decision-making body (either the supreme court or the judicial council) aware of what is possible by showing what has been done and learned in other states. Across the United States, state court administrators have led reinvention efforts, instituted innovative best practices, and used data to improve services throughout state judiciaries. The recent reinvention efforts in Vermont, as well as the statewide reorganization done in Utah several years ago, are just two of many such examples. Particularly in areas such as technology projects, collection of costs, and use or categorization of nonjudicial personnel, where judges will more likely defer to a state or local court administrator due to that administrator’s knowledge and experience, state court administrators are well positioned to lead and should not hesitate to do so.

A state court administrator—or a trial court administrator for that matter—is only allowed to implement a vision if one’s court or council allows it. And depending on structure, the speed of implementing such a vision statewide may vary greatly. Getting the “green light” requires that vision incorporate the answers to likely questions on implementation, particularly with regard to the issue of change management associated with the vision one is proposing. While certainly not true in all cases—many judges have initiated bold administrative reforms on their own initiative—most judges by their nature are likely to be risk averse. The reason may be that judges believe it is always better to import the philosophy of the medical profession, “first, do no harm,” when rendering judgment. While this approach is also valuable in administrative matters, it does not translate as well when one is seeking to improve services or implement new ones; for example, judges do not pilot a judgment, it is final, but courts must pilot new initiatives to determine potential successes.

Since entering this profession I have constantly been amazed at the amount of detail that some of my successful, longer-serving colleagues possess; their instant recall of knowledge in areas as diverse as automation, probation, statistical reporting, and problem-solving courts makes it clear that they have developed this knowledge by putting it in place, not by reading it. In short, by developing and implementing a vision for their systems, they have balanced the appropriately risk-averse nature of judges with their own vision for the future, and in so doing they have fulfilled the core role of a state court administrator as strategist. The growth of problem-solving courts, as well as the increased acceptance by judges of trial court performance standards, are but two examples of how collaborative strategies between state court administrators and their judges have produced such success.

The Project Manager

Perhaps one might find it odd that a state court administrator’s role as project manager would be considered under the category of vision. To understand this, one must consider the proper role of a state court administrator on statewide projects. The state court administrator should have a staff that is prepared to take on the direct role of project management, but a state court administrator should not leave the setting of broad goals to that manager or to the executive team. In particular, all state court administrators are responsible for defining the need for the project in terms of improvement of service to the end user. These goals and end-user benefits must be articulated by the state court administrator in a way that the state judicial decision-making body can understand and support; in a way that staff can understand the need for the priority (thus increasing their motivation to work on it); and in a way that end-users in the courts sees the benefit to them and accept the need for expending resources on the project.

For example, the ongoing centralization of court technology has led state court administrators and trial court administrators to develop project management skills by necessity. State court administrators do not have to know the answers to all the technical questions anyone might have but, rather, must be able to ask the right questions to IT staff and business staff to determine the viability of a project. A forward-thinking state court administrator must have enough skill to recognize whether the answers being provided are consistent or inconsistent with the statewide vision in terms of one’s business users. In addition, central office projects like e-filing must be described to users in a way that shows a direct benefit to trial courts when compared to other needs such as increased staff. If this is not done in the early stages of project planning, such projects may end up halfway completed or shelved permanently no matter how valuable their long-term potential might be.

Function

In my relatively short tenure, it has been my experience that all court administrators, state or local, like to talk about vision. I do not think many of us would have gotten into this profession if we did not. The good news is that, if as a state court administrator’s vision is frustrated for whatever reason, there is still plenty of job security in just getting the daily work done. State and trial court administrators alike, in some sense, all make widgets (manage case calendaring, deploy computers, run human resources systems, etc.), crunch numbers, and manage budgets. As stated in the Conference of State Court Administrators’ “Position Paper on Effective Judicial Governance and Accountability” (2001):

Certain administrative functions are essential to effective judicial governance. These include assignment and calendaring of cases, management of court personnel (including hiring, firing and deployment), management of court and administrative records and judicial branch education. In core areas such as these, the courts should be afforded the capacity to manage their own affairs, as court administrators are closest to the issues and best qualified to make the policy determinations necessary to ensuring the highest level of service to which the public is entitled.

While many of these functions may more properly be said to rest with trial court administrators, their statewide application always involves the state court administrator. State court administrators must make it their business to understand how the daily functions listed above are done in trial courts, and they must ensure they are properly and consistently done in the most efficient manner statewide.

The Widget Maker

The statewide management of the specific duties described by COSCA in 2001 makes up a large part of the core of a court administrator’s role, regardless of state structure. State Court AdministratorFor the most part, the courts do control these functions as COSCA had hoped; in most cases, courts delegate these roles to the state court administrator to ensure proper coordination with trial courts on all such matters. For example, in case calendaring and records management, statewide standards developed by the state administrative office will ensure that whatever local systems of calendaring or records management are used, they are done efficiently.

Weighted workload studies, statewide personnel regulations, and either statewide funding or statewide staffing standards developed by the state administrative office ensure more efficient allocation of human resources, which, in turn, increase credibility with legislatures who insist on easily understood empirical measures to prove the value of the funding decisions they must make. State court administrators must master the task of developing such standards using empirical data such as time studies, as well as national best practices, without forgetting the all-important step of validating and codeveloping them with relevant trial court stakeholders.

A state court administrator’s role in managing human resources becomes increasingly important when, as is the case with many of the Baby Boomer generation retiring, a state experiences sudden turnover in leadership. In short, a state court administrator’s bosses expect the trains to run on time—and by the way, to do so in a way that does not offend the sensibilities of the trial courts. If a state court administrator can manage this task, success with function might, in turn, after some years yield the ability to get back to that “vision thing.”

The Number Cruncher

All state court administrators and their offices generate data, data, and more data. No area is more likely to be the subject of scrutiny and potential derision from trial courts and legislators alike, but no area is more likely to be requested by both trial courts and legislators to answer any number of questions, many of which cannot be systematically answered by existing reports in the case management system. And, by the way, the fact that the existing system is not readily capable of producing the requested ad hoc report is not likely to generate much sympathy from the data requestor, who expects all this stuff that is put into the case management system to mean that one can in turn get anything out of it that one can dream up.

While state court administrators certainly do not need to know the ins and outs of how to get those numbers out of the system, an understanding of the art of the possible is required. State court administrators need to know in general terms what systems are capable of producing and why—because if the administrator does not, one can be sure a judge or legislator will find out at the most inopportune moment. State court administrators must also challenge staff and even the vendors who create the systems to identify the gaps in reporting that have become more readily apparent when the same unanswerable data question continues to reveal itself. A shared responsibility must also be borne by state court administrators and technical staff in preparing statistical reporting systems for future systemic enhancements that all parties know will be required, such as improved federal criminal history reporting from all levels of the state justice system and improved treatment-court data to quantify program impacts and successes. So while state court administrators may not crunch the numbers or the data, there is certainly a need to know what is being crunched, and, more important, why it is being crunched.

The Budget Manager

Even though state judicial budgets are done more than 50 different ways, there still remains no more common a role among all state court administrators than that of budget manager. It is in this role that the honesty and integrity of state court administrators are most critical, since court administrators generally know the budget far State Court Administratorbetter than the judges for whom they work (once again, there is that pesky issue of the judges’ day job). Our supreme courts and judicial councils rely heavily on state court administrators to be budget experts and to present options for every known budget scenario with full knowledge that at any moment the governor or legislature may require the pulling of nonexistent rabbits out of the collective hat of the judiciary. Nevertheless, state court administrators must create and present such scenarios and have the data to support them, lest the judiciary be left to the whim of the other two branches to “fix” the judiciary’s problems for them.

In addition to creating budgets, all state court administrators are responsible for managing spending and fiscal policy. Blue Oyster Cult may have said “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” but I guarantee no state court administrator has ever said “Don’t Fear the Auditor.” It is right to fear the auditor, and the image of the entire judiciary is at stake if state court administrators do not create sound processes to alleviate such fears. Thus, especially in difficult budget times and in times when politicians are seeking notoriety for uncovering government waste—be it real or perceived—all who serve as state court administrators must constantly review purchasing processes, travel policies, and ongoing expenses, all in the hope of staying one step ahead of the man with the scythe, which in this case has ten keys and white ribbon paper on it.

The Kitchen Sink

When it comes to the kitchen sink, state court administrators share a bond not only with each other and with trial court administrators, but also with any chief executive or chief operating officer in the corporate world. As with any executive position, when something needs doing and one’s board wants it done, the state court administrator is the one who has to find a way to get it done. In the world of state courts, this most commonly leads to court administrators acting as intermediaries, program managers, and legislative liaisons. As system leaders, court administrators are often asked to take on these roles, since they do not belong logically anywhere else in the judiciary. At least one in this profession can take comfort that our “other duties as assigned” do provide some measure of job security.

The Intermediary

As any good management book will state, communication is the key to success. In the world of the state court administrator, one must speak the language of the trial State Court Administratorcourts to the state body, and the language of the state body to the trial courts. This role becomes even more critical when proposing or implementing new initiatives or determining ways for reducing budgets. To fulfill the role of intermediary, state court administrators know that one must seek first to understand, rather than to be understood. State court administrators must know and deeply care how the trial courts do business, so that they can understand the challenges and difficulties being faced on the front lines of the judiciary—and present those challenges and difficulties to decision-making bodies in a cohesive, statewide context to ensure that informed decisions are made.

One way in which many state court administrators have dealt with this tension is to live by yet another management book axiom: “The more power you give away, the more you get back in return.” Throughout the nation, state court administrators, in collaboration with their governing bodies and trial courts, have developed committee structures, staffed by the administrative office, to assist in making difficult decisions. Including trial judges, circuit clerks, court administrators, juvenile supervisors, and other trial court leaders on statewide committees affords the court administrator the opportunity for others to see both the local and statewide implications of decisions—and helps to turn potentially difficult situations into well-managed, long-term solutions. When state court administrators recognize and promote the growth and expertise of trial court managers through collaboration, training, or any other method possible, the state as a whole only stands to benefit.

The Legislative Liaison

Like it or not, governors and legislators are a necessity in implementing effective judicial administration. But, as COSCA noted in its 2001 white paper, questions asked by legislatures and governors as to how the judiciary does business—when properly framed by state court administrators who are prepared to answer such questions—are not to be feared, as they can present opportunities to the well-positioned court to define the ways in which courts have sought to improve the administration of justice even without the assistance of the other branches of government. State court administrators spend a great deal of time measuring their own performance and evaluating potential statutory changes that might enhance that performance. By being proactive in proposing such solutions to the other branches, or when applicable implementing them internally or in consultation with the other branches, court administrators gain the credibility that may be needed when it comes time to tell either the executive or legislative branch that their proposed solution may not be the best choice.

To be sure, any state court administrator dealing with the legislature must be prepared to inoculate the state’s courts against those who would use the legislative process to undermine the courts. Fortunately, most of the steps one would take to create a proactive agenda should also prove useful with those who seek to “help” state courts without asking first. The preparation of well-reasoned impact statements, coupled with local court decision makers who stand ready to engage with legislators who may not have the courts’ best interests at heart, may be able to keep such legislative well-wishers at bay—at least until next year.

It almost goes without saying that intergovernmental relations with the legislature, governor, and (perhaps, in many cases, more importantly) the heads of the various executive agencies with whom state court administrators must invariably work, are all critical—and state court administrators cannot and do not neglect these relationships. As with many of the roles of a state court administrator, it is certain that if the state court administrator is not doing this outreach, the void will nonetheless be filled, but perhaps in a way that does not present a full statewide picture of the impact of any potential policy decision, thus losing the valuable impact a state court administrator can offer.

The Program Manager

As every state court administrator knows, modern courts spend more time now managing cases than has ever been required before. Much of that hands-on management is required in the ever-increasing realm of court programs. Be it treatment court, domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, or child abuse and neglect, a case is no longer just a case, and court administrators must evaluate and understand how to manage such programs efficiently. As with technology projects, court administrators cannot be expected to have all the answers, but we must be able to assess risks, determine needs, and avoid the pitfalls of mismanagement that any fast-growing program might experience.

In addition, these areas often require coordination with partners well beyond the usual scope of justice system partners. Court administrators in recent years have had to begin understanding the ins and outs of state mental health programs, the scope of state-provided social services, and even the proper roles of public-private partnerships and nonprofit corporations in providing services to those under the jurisdiction of the court. It is not likely possible for a state court administrator to follow all of the changes in this still-growing area of the law, but state court administrators, by experience or by necessity, all have the role of assisting trial courts with managing them in a way that will poise them for future success.

Conclusion

So, now that we have taken a tour of what it is a state court administrator does, are we any closer to the answer to Mr. Lawson’s question, “Why the hell do we do it”? Perhaps not, but I do think that his answer is one that anyone who has served in the role of state court administrator could understand. Although I have only served in this role for four short years, I have come to know that my colleagues and I all likely share, as Mr. Lawson so aptly put it, “A belief in the importance and integrity of the judicial process; reformist zeal tempered by pragmatic realism; probably, pure cussedness; and later a desire to protect and nurture what had been created.” I only hope those of us who will serve in the next generation of court administration can live up to those colorful and lofty goals.