Edgartown District Court judge sees hopeful, and troubling, trends

Judge H. Gregory Williams. — Photo by Susan Safford

As First Justice of Edgartown District Court since 2005, I welcome this chance to offer a few observations as 2012 begins. One of 62 district courts in the Commonwealth, your court serves the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.

Although other courts sit on the Vineyard, district courts are “gateway” courts of general jurisdiction and are likeliest to be the one most Islanders experience (usually, I recognize, involuntarily). We handle an array of criminal cases from magistrate hearing to arraignment to six-person jury trials, other criminal cases more briefly, and a myriad of civil cases, including actions for money damages, restraining orders, and various licensure reviews.

One challenge we face on the civil side concerns commitments for mental illness or substance abuse. Among court functions is to determine whether someone should be involuntarily committed for such problems if he or she poses a danger to themselves or others. Hearings involve evidence from clinicians. But since clinicians and facilities are off-Island, our hearings occur in a different court, in Falmouth. Arranging transportation there for subjects of such hearings can be difficult to accomplish at any time, but become increasingly so as a day wears on until, by afternoon, we simply run out of time for that transport and to ensure a clinician’s availability there. People cannot be held in custody overnight on a petition for commitment. We have been mostly fortunate in dealing with these cases, but remain unsatisfied with how we have been forced by circumstance to handle them.

More generally, I am hobbled in describing how we fared this year. Our work occurs one case, one person, at a time — yet I am prevented from commenting on individual matters. Statistics tell a meaningful, but partial, story. Criminal case totals are falling somewhat: in 2009, we had 1,016; last year, 919; and so far this year, in late December, we have had 882. On the civil side (which does not count small claims, summary process (evictions) or supplementary process (post-judgment collections)), we had 211 filings in 2009, 221 last year, and 186 so far this year. The harassment prevention statute emerged in 2010, which has increased our “restraining-order” filings: 96 in 2009, 100 last year, and 147 so far this year.

Although the criminal totals engender some hope, we all know that a troubling trend on the Island—and elsewhere—is the growing abuse of prescription drugs such as OxyContin. Plainly, the most disturbing aspect of drug addiction of any kind is the crime it breeds, notably house breaks: addicts seeking money, salable property, and drugs themselves. Everyone agrees that house-breaking is at least distressing, and often devastating, to the victim. Less monolithic is the societal view we take of addicts, who can be seen as criminals but also victims—defendants charged with a drug crime are also advised that if they are drug-dependent, treatment is available. Some Islanders feel such crime is dealt with too leniently; others, too harshly. The dual nature of drug crime has not been resolved in the decades since our country declared in 1971 a “war on drugs” it had begun waging before World War I.

Trial courts do not form policy. We are reactive. The “court system” consists of several elements in varying states of tension: the police—exemplary on this Island — the prosecution, the defense bar, probation, the clerk/magistrate, the judge. Each component has its job, and, except for the last two, we are not adjuncts of each other. But what we all seek to do is apply to specific behavior the laws created by the Legislature. We strive to do that in a non-mechanical way, to avoid the criticism leveled at the “court system” a century ago by G.K. Chesterton. He noted, however hyperbolically, that the “horrible thing about all legal officials” is not that they are “wicked” or “stupid” but “simply that they have got used to. . . the usual [person] in the usual place. . . .”

Because Edgartown is a three-day court, and judges other than me sit here, I visit several other courts, (after having sat in most western Massachusetts district courts), in Barnstable, Plymouth and Bristol counties. I, thus, have some basis for comparison, and I am proud of the work every single court I have seen does. Courts are unhappy places. Most court users feel anxious at best. Some can be despondent. However many courts I visit, though, I am gratified to report that this Dukes County Court — our security staff, clerk’s office, and probation personnel — is singular in understanding that most Islanders we serve are troubled when they come here, and we try to treat people fairly and respectfully, as people and not ciphers or statistics, with an eye, too, to public interests and safety.

If we are ever seen as falling short in that service, I want to know.