In November, I was privileged, along with other members of the CCJ and COSCA Boards of Directors, to participate in the 22nd Annual William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence reception and dinner. Being at the Supreme Court of the United States and meeting Chief Justice John Roberts was an experience I’ll never forget. However, the highlight of the event was hearing from the recipient, the Honorable Kim Berkeley Clark, administrative judge, family division, Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Judge Clark shared with us a remarkable story of her courtroom and the dignity and respect that she insists on for all who enter. The work she is doing with families in crisis and assisting them with finding services to reduce their trauma and restore them to functioning is a credit to her, her family, and her community. It is indeed a model that would benefit any city, county, or state.
Along with this memorable dinner, I participated in one of the final meetings of our National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, as well as the first meeting of our new National Task Force on Opioid Abuse. The hard work, dedication, and vision of these task force members is incredible. I look forward to the final report of the fines, fees, and bail task force, as a preview of the products coming from the four subcommittees that was discussed in their meeting left me with a renewed sense of optimism and enthusiasm for tools that can help my state with reforms we have started. These practical guides and suggestions will assist every judge and court administrator facing daily questions about legal financial obligations and overcrowded jails.
Likewise, the opioid task force immersed themselves in a great deal of education about drug abuse and opioid addiction, in particular. Their challenge will be to narrow the scope of all the need in this area to focus on those aspects on which courts can have the greatest impact. This will particularly be the case when determining resources and assistance in rural areas of our country where services are severely limited or nonexistent. Again, despite the great challenges they face, I left with a sense of pride and optimism at the dedication and the enthusiasm of our task force members to provide practical, useful guides for our judicial officers and staff to reduce or eradicate this terrible epidemic.
I mention these very positive aspects because I believe they underscore many of the areas that the 2017 State of State Courts Survey addressed. As this survey revealed, courts remain the most trusted branch of government; however, many Americans express doubts about political bias in the court system and judges who are seen as out of touch with the communities they serve. Many citizens still view the court system as too complicated to allow for self-representation, and there are challenges for staff to improve customer service. Finally, 3-in-4 Americans identified justice in rural and underpopulated areas as an area of concern, with 1-in-3 saying it is a major problem.
As I see it, the self-examination our courts undergo through the use of the survey, and the study of difficult and complex issues such as those the task forces undertake, is the first step in resolving the issues that exist with the status quo and moving to more innovative strategies to continue the relevance of courts throughout the United States. We have problems and issues that need to be addressed. We are most likely the least understood branch of government. However, our willingness to look at our processes and policies and to make adjustments or major reforms when called for are also reasons why courts remain more trusted than the executive and legislative branches of government. However, this is not by a high percentage and leaves lots of room to improve.
I’ll close with a hearty wish for a peaceful, restful, and happy holiday season. With Christmas and Chanukah around the corner, I hope you and your families have the best of holidays and a joyful New Year. Take care, and remember our peers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where many are still without power, and let’s give thanks for all the many blessings we have received in 2017. Thank you for your continued public service!
COSCA Adopts Policy Paper on Courts & Mental Illness
All too often, the mentally ill in this country fail to receive the treatment they need and land in prisons and jails. COSCA’s latest policy paper, “Decriminalization of Mental Illness: Fixing a Broken System,” discusses what courts, policy makers, and law enforcement can do to confront this issue. Recommended actions include expanding the use of “Outpatient Assisted Treatment” and encouraging policy makers to modify mental health codes to adopt a standard based on capacity, not just conduct, for ordering involuntary mental health treatment. This policy paper was produced by the COSCA Policy and Liaison Committee and written by Milton Mack (Michigan), with contributions from Steve Canterbury (state court administrator, ret., West Virginia) and Judge Laura R. Mack (29th District Court, Wayne, Michigan).
National Criminal Justice Toolkit Helps Mentally Ill in Rural States
The Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute has released a toolkit for rural states around the country seeking comprehensive solutions to improve the way their criminal justice systems serve the mentally ill. The toolkit is modeled on South Dakota’s successful effort to overhaul its state policies. Following the findings of a statewide task force that took a comprehensive look at the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system, South Dakota lawmakers adopted comprehensive legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Dennis Daugaard in March of this year. The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust provided funding for the task force.
National Court Organizations Begin Family Justice Initiative
The Conference of State Court Administrators has partnered with the National Center for State Courts, the Conference of Chief Justices, the Institute for the Advancement of the Legal System, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to create the Family Justice Initiative to evaluate and improve the way courts handle domestic relations cases. The State Justice Institute is funding the initiative, which will last 36 months and is modeled after the Civil Justice Initiative. The Family Justice Initiative will focus on cases involving divorce, property distribution and spousal support, and the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities. The initiative will exclude cases that originated in criminal, probate, or juvenile courts. Member Spotlight: Sandra A. Vujnovich, Louisiana
Why and how did you become a state court administrator?
The short and simple answer is that I was appointed judicial administrator in March 2014 when the position became vacant upon the retirement of my immediate predecessor, Tim Averill. The longer and more complicated answer is that after college graduation, I worked for several years as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill for U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston. I loved working for the government, and rather than making me cynical, it made me optimistic and aware of the good that can be accomplished. I attended law school with the idea of returning to Washington D.C., but was offered a clerkship with then Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice John A. Dixon, Jr., which I couldn’t turn down. I then entered private practice, but after several years, I returned to the Supreme Court as the senior law clerk to then-Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero, Jr. My intent was to clerk one or two years, and then return to private practice. However, I was soon promoted to executive counsel, which was a relatively new position, designed to assist the chief justice in his growing administrative duties. I was introduced to the world of judicial administration and all the opportunities and challenges it offered. I loved it. As executive counsel, I worked closely with the esteemed Dr. Hugh Collins, our judicial administrator. Some examples of my responsibilities as executive counsel include managing the court’s administrative docket, assisting with recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and coordinating the 2007 midyear meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices. Knowing Chief Justice Calogero would retire one day, the thought would occasionally cross my mind of applying for the position of judicial administrator, a thought I quickly dismissed because Dr. Collins was doing an incredible job, was well-respected, and wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.
Chief Justice Calogero retired in 2008, and his successor, Chief Justice Kitty Kimball, asked me to stay on as her executive counsel. A few years later, much to everyone’s surprise, Dr. Collins decided to retire. I considered applying for my “dream job” at that time; however, I decided I could better serve Chief Justice Kimball and the court if I remained as executive counsel. I expected to return to private practice when Chief Justice Kimball retired. However, two years later, Chief Justice Kimball retired and was succeeded in 2013 by Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, who also asked me to stay on as executive counsel. To my great fortune, several months later, the position of judicial administrator became available. I applied and was selected by the court. After two decades at the court and almost three decades as an attorney, I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of my career.
What do you like most and least about being a state court administrator?
I can honestly say that I am never bored in my work as judicial administrator. Each day is different with new projects, new problems and challenges, new fires to put out, and new opportunities. It is rewarding and intellectually stimulating, while allowing me to work in public service. While one of the most enjoyable aspects of my position is getting to work with dedicated and talented staff, personnel issues can also be the least enjoyable. Having to make due with less because of budget constraints, delaying or denying pay raises, and disciplining employees, including termination, can be gut-wrenching.
Tell us about your family.
I am a first-generation American. My father immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia (now Croatia) when he was 14, knowing not a word of English. He embraced his new homeland and as an adult, became an educator after earning his bachelor’s degree, two masters’ degrees, and a Ph.D., all in mathematics and adult education. He also became an expert in the area of Slavic immigration to Louisiana, writing a book and several articles on the subject. I kept my maiden name professionally in part to honor my father and our heritage. My dad and my mom, an elementary school teacher, always stressed the importance of education. As a result, my siblings and I all chose professional careers: I became a lawyer, my older sister is a doctor, my younger sister is a pharmacist, and my brother became an airline pilot after a stint in the Marine Corps.
I have been married for 24 years to Joseph Lorenzo, my wonderful and supportive husband who retired after 30 years with the New Orleans Police Department, and who is now is an investigator with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office. We are the proud parents of two incredible girls—Joelle, a senior finance major at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and Elizabeth, a freshman at Louisiana State University whose major changes monthly. Our empty nest is filled with our dogs, Mambo and Mala, and our cat, Max.
What is your philosophy about using social networking? If you use social networking, which sites do you prefer, Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, or others?
My use of social networking is just that—social. I joined Facebook to learn what my daughters were up to, but they soon migrated to other social-media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and Finsta and who knows what else. So, I mainly stay on Facebook now to keep up with friends and family who live elsewhere, to discover recipes I will never make, and to vicariously enjoy everyone else’s exotic travels. While I do have a Linked In profile, I spend very little time on the site. I had an Instagram account—again to spy on, I mean follow, my daughters—but somehow it disappeared when I got a new phone.
Seriously, maybe it’s a sign of my advanced age, but while it is true that social networking can be beneficial and perhaps even effect major societal change, it can also be incredibly divisive and destructive, and I don’t like it or trust it. To me, anonymity is tantamount to cowardice. But I agree that social networking is here to stay, so I will continue to have conversations with the millennials in the office to broaden my virtual horizons.
While our court has an active website, we do not currently have a Facebook page or a Twitter account. While we have discussed both platforms, we understand that a stale Facebook page or inactive Twitter feed can be worse than nothing at all, and we just do not have the staff resources at this time to devote to updating and monitoring a FB page or Twitter feed. But it’s definitely on my things-to-do list.
If you didn’t have to work for a living, what would you do?
While what immediately comes to mind is “sleep until noon every day” or “watch everything on Netflix or what’s in my DVR queue,” I believe I would volunteer to work with young girls. I was a Girl Scout all the way from Brownie to Cadette, and then I was a Girl Scout leader for both of my daughters’ troops. The Girl Scout experience teaches girls to be confident, independent, and respectful of the environment, of each other, and of themselves. Plus, it was a lot of fun. I’d like every young girl to have a similar experience. Or if that weren’t possible, I’d want to run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation so I could give lots and lots of money to deserving charities.
Anniversaries . . .
COSCA congratulates the following members for achieving anniversaries in office in January through March: Anne Wicks of the District of Columbia (18 years); Mike Buenger of Ohio (3 years, plus 5 years in South Dakota and 8 years in Missouri); Robin Sweet of Nevada and Nancy Dixon of Kansas (7 years); Sandra Vujnovich of Louisiana (4 years); Kathy Lloyd of Missouri and Deborah Taylor Tate of Tennessee (3 years); Christopher Keating of New Hampshire (2 years); and Gary Johnson of West Virginia and Marty Sullivan of Arkansas (1 year).
. . . and Birthdays
Nine COSCA members celebrate birthdays in January and March (none in February). Happy Birthday to Lily Sharpe of Wyoming (January 8); Rick Schwermer of Utah (January 16); Martin Hoshino of California (January 20); Beth McLaughlin of Montana (January 21); Pam Harris of Maryland (January 23); Christine Johnson of Alaska (January 24); Greg Sattizahn of South Dakota (January 31); Randy Koschnick of Wisconsin (March 17); and Lawrence Marks of New York (March 21).