Retired Rhode Island Court Administrator Joseph Baxter receives 2023 Palmer Award
The following are remarks by COSCA Immediate Past President Karl Hade:
Good afternoon. On behalf of the Conference of State Court Administrators, I am honored to be with you today to present the Kenneth R. Palmer Distinguished Service Award.
This award honors a current or former COSCA member who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership and excellence in judicial administration, or significantly advanced one or more of the following:
- Developing public trust and confidence in the judicial system
- Supporting access to justice and fairness in the courts
- Contributing to the effective and efficient administration of justice
- Defending the independence of the courts as a neutral forum for the peaceable resolution of disputes; and
- Promoting the judiciary as a co-equal, co-reliant, and accountable branch of government.
Award recipients have demonstrated this work through direct service to and active participation in COSCA; a special project of extraordinary merit or accomplishment; or continued professional excellence through a career devoted to judicial administration.
This year’s honoree has been blissfully retired for almost two years now. He is enjoying a much-deserved retirement after serving the great state of Rhode Island for close to four decades. But before his retirement, he faithfully served COSCA as its president from 2019 to 2020, just as the country – and the world – was entering the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. His leadership as co-chair of the Rapid Response Team was instrumental in quickly activating this group to help courts across the country safely respond to this unprecedented public health emergency.
Over the years, he has contributed to national committees and projects like NCSC’s Research Advisory Committee and the Legal Services Corporation Disaster Task Force Committee. He has co-chaired the CCJ/COSCA Joint Committee on Security and Emergency Preparedness and chaired the NCSC Board of Directors Public Affairs Committee.
His nomination notes him as “an intelligent, well-informed leader who earned the respect of his court system’s officials and employees, government officials, community members and national partners. He was uniquely qualified to influence public policy and bring about meaningful change to courts during an unprecedented time in court history.”
In his home state of Rhode Island, he began a long career with the Rhode Island Judiciary as a clerk in the Family Court, where he worked for 18 years. His affable nature and strong work ethic earned him promotions through the ranks that led him to the Supreme Court administrative team in 2001. Three years later, he became the youngest state court administrator in Rhode Island and served in that capacity for more than 17 years.
His tenure as state court administrator spanned several significant events in the life of the judiciary. In 2004, the judiciary secured its place as a coequal branch of government. His ability to navigate the new landscape and create a space for the judiciary on the state stage positioned the branch for success. He tirelessly and fearlessly defended, promoted, and reinforced the judiciary’s independence at every turn. While solidifying the judiciary’s new independence, he also oversaw the construction of two state-of-the-art courthouses and led the judiciary through revolutionary technological advances that included new case management and electronic filing systems, and significant infrastructure updates.
And then there was the pandemic. His nomination noted: “Despite the constant challenges of acquiring plexiglass and PPE, of pivoting to a largely remote workforce and ensuring the safety of employees working on-site, he never lost his focus on the judiciary’s core mission.”
In the midst of meetings, phone calls and fire drills, he also understood the need to assure the public that the Rhode Island Judiciary was open for business and ready to adapt to the changing circumstances of this public health crisis. He accomplished this through an OpEd that appeared in The Providence Journal.
The piece opens by stating:
“The dispensing of justice is difficult to exercise in the best of times; doing so in the throws of a pandemic tests the very limits of the greatest system of justice known to mankind – ours!”
He closes the OpEd with these words: “Whether it involves enhancement of our video-conferencing and tele-conferencing capabilities or turning to improved software to conduct hearings from remote locations, we are constantly exploring new modes by which to dispense justice. As best we are able, we in the judiciary will continue to provide access to all those we serve.”
Those in the Rhode Island Judiciary and the public it serves, along with many of us in this room, have been positively influenced by Joe Baxter. In the words of former colleague and current Rhode Island State Court administrator Julie Hamil, “Though he is dearly missed, for the leaders who succeed him, Joe remains an exceptional example of integrity, humility and public service.”
It is my honor to introduce the 2023 Kenneth R. Palmer Distinguished Service Award recipient, Joe Baxter.