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'Usually What You Get . . . Are Tragic Cases' : Massachusetts After-Hours Judges Fulfill Need

December 20, 1987|DEBBIE SCHUPACK | United Press International

BOSTON — Many Massachusetts judges spend two weeks a year not knowing whether to wear their judicial robes or their bathrobes.

Middlesex Superior Judge Paul Chernoff had already traded one for the other when he got a late-night call that a couple wanted their sick baby removed from a life-support system. Then, he immediately became a judge again.

"I held a hearing through the night, and I took custody away from the parents, and the baby was kept on the life-support system," Chernoff said. "Then, a miracle. A week later the baby was perfect.

"In the thousands of cases I've had in my 11 years on the bench, that one stands out as the most moving."

Judges Volunteer

The case joins a growing number of judicial rulings that take place on nights and weekends, when courts are closed. Under its three-year-old Judicial Response System, Massachusetts has 215 trial judges who volunteer for two-week stints on call--beepers and all.

"We came to an understanding that the courts might close at 4:30 but citizens' need for access to judicial intervention did not end at 4:30," said Fitchburg District Judge Andre Gelinas.

After-hours calls typically involve four kinds of cases: restraining orders in domestic abuse, search warrants, medical emergencies and mental health questions, said Mary Jane Moreau, program coordinator.

Among the miscellany are Saturday morning calls from frantic attorneys for couples who forgot to file for a marriage license, and need a judicial waiver of the waiting period just hours before the couple is due at the altar, Moreau said.

'Something Positive'

Framingham District Judge Robert Greco recalls traveling to a police station to grant a waiver to a California couple on their way from the airport to their Massachusetts wedding site.

"Usually what you get in this system are tragic cases. It was very nice for a change to do something positive," he said.

Samuel Zoll, chief justice of the state's district courts, praised the system, although he says it makes for a long workday during a judge's stint on call.

"Many of the evenings I was on call I was up all night," Zoll said. "You've got to work the following day and do the best you can. You're always on edge. There's always the aspect of expectancy you're going to get called.

'System Is a Good One'

"But I think the system is a good one. Given the nature of the cases, the need for relief that the parties seek falls and should fall to the judge."

Moreau said Massachusetts is the only system in the country with an emergency network of on-call judges. "Judges from other states shudder and say, 'You do that?' " she said.

The number of judicial after-hours calls has increased dramatically since the program was established in July, 1984, according to figures released in November. In the first year, there were 324 emergency calls. From July, 1986, to June, 1987, the system handled 1,235 emergency calls, Moreau said.

Moreau attributed the increase to awareness by state and local police in the judicial program.

The vast majority of cases--997 from July, 1986, to June, 1987--are for restraining orders stemming from domestic abuse, Moreau said.

Pregnant Woman Beaten

Middlesex Superior Court Judge Charles Grabau received an 11:30 p.m. call one night last month to issue a restraining order for a pregnant woman who was beaten by her boyfriend.

"He left and threatened to come back," Grabau said. "She called the police, they called me, and I issued a restraining order . . . that Thursday night good until Friday."

A spouse requesting a restraining order after hours usually turns to local police, who contact one of four state police barracks where authorities are instructed to telephone or page the on-call judge for intervention, Moreau said.

Chernoff, whose region includes many hospitals in Boston and Cambridge, said many of his after-hours calls are for medical emergencies. The cases often involve Jehovah's Witnesses or Christian Scientists, religions that prohibit certain medical treatment, who are refusing needed blood for themselves or their children.

'Very Poignant Cases'

"I've had plans for weekends or nights that I've had disrupted because of medical emergencies, but those cases are very poignant," he said. "It's a life-or-death question, and you have a chance to do something rather elevating."

From July, 1986, to June, 1987, judges across the state received 45 medical emergency calls on nights and weekends.

After-hours judges are also asked to issue nighttime search warrants, usually in narcotics cases.

The fourth major category of calls involves involuntary commitments in mental health cases.

"If you have a prisoner in jail, say, who has gone off the deep end and appears suicidal, then there's a situation of whether the person should be transferred to a mental hospital, and (prison officials) would call a judge," Chernoff said.

Power of Judges

Through a judicial order, judges participating in the state's emergency network are empowered to hear any matter. A juvenile court judge can issue a search warrant in a narcotics case, and a family probate judge can commit a mentally unstable prisoner to Bridgewater State Hospital, Moreau said.

"An infinite number of human things can happen, and they do," Chernoff said. "This may be good and it may be bad, but it forces judges to make decisions in areas they don't usually make decisions in."

He said jurists follow a detailed handbook to stay updated on cases they do not generally handle and often turn to their colleagues-- sometimes in the middle of the night.

Before the state established the emergency system, after-hours judicial intervention was handled in an ad hoc manner. Local police would turn to judges they knew in the area for late-night search warrants, and family and probate judges would handle most of the domestic abuse cases.

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