2022 State of the Profession: “Courts Leading the Way in Advancing Justice: A Call to Action”

The NACM Annual State of the Profession Address is an opportunity for the NACM president to provide the association members with an assessment of the impact of courts and court administration on society.  The president reemphasizes the shared values of courts, provides an analysis of the past, a list of current issues and challenges, and most importantly hope and optimism for our shared future.  In doing so the speech also highlights the efforts of the association and its partners to advance the work and evolution of the courts in the nation.  The complete address given by president Kathy Griffin (2021-22) at the 2022 Annual Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is provided below. [Greg Lambard, Communications Chair/NACM Board.]

Good morning all and, again, welcome to Milwaukee. I am Kathy Griffin, NACM president, and it is my privilege to deliver our State of the Profession address. At the annual conference in 2018 the inaugural State of the Profession address was delivered on behalf of the NACM Board as a way for the association to “voice” the state of the profession. The NACM Board feels it is an important way to deliver the message. Each year at the conclusion of the annual conference a Voice of the Profession survey is sent to our members. It is from that survey that the Governance Committee creates this address. With that said, I would like to thank the Governance Committee, led by Angie VanSchoick and Kent Pankey, and the entire group that worked on determining this update to the State of the Profession.

Our conference theme this year, “Courts Leading the Way in Advancing Justice:  A Call to Action,” was well thought out in our current state of the justice system. There are always new subjects of interest to report, along with the familiar problems we’ve always had to overcome. Until recently, however, the profession has seldom found itself challenged to significantly change the way it does business. Historically, courts’ go-slow approach to change has even been praised as serving the interests of legal certainty and the rule of law. This interest in the stable evolution of our laws does not account for the distinct need to modernize the processes by which we apply those laws and the ways in which our public institutions operate. The advancement of justice and the rule of law itself are profoundly impacted by issues of real and perceived accessibility, real and perceived fairness, representativeness on the bench and in the court workforce, and our ability in the courts and the justice system to engage the public with modern, responsive technologies. These all affect the public’s trust and confidence in our courts.

Although every branch of government has a role to play in achieving justice, the courts can lead the way. My opportunity over the last year to interact with dedicated court staff and administrators at all levels in every type of court, and with chief justices and judicial officers who preside over every type of case, has given me a vantage point to proudly report that, over the last couple years in particular, our courts have demonstrated that they have the resilience and resourcefulness to lead the way when we are willing to act. When we act, we lead by acknowledging the challenges before us, by sharing and learning from each other’s experiences, by being willing to try new things, and by committing ourselves to improvement. I thank each of you for leading in your courts and communities, regardless of the personal and professional challenges that we each have faced. And I call us to action to both respond to change and to lead change.


Our profession is currently experiencing a period of extraordinary transition, fueled by the recent pandemic, strong calls for racial justice, economic factors that before the pandemic led to certain challenges and now lead to other challenges, too, and local and national political dynamics that bleed into the public’s view of the judicial branch. As Baby Boomers retire, court workforces are giving way to new generations of employees who have different expectations regarding leadership, management, and how work should be done.  Yes, this means new challenges for courts in recruiting and retaining employees; however, importantly, it also presents new opportunities to develop better and more equitable policies and practices. Similarly, the public we serve has evolving expectations about how the courts should provide services and about the proper role and responsibility of the courts in addressing systemic biases and historical injustices.  Access, fairness, timeliness, and the basic quality of customer service remain performance areas where courts must do better. We’ve shown that we can. Ultimately, the decisions that court managers make will influence public trust and confidence in the courts and the integrity of the rule of law.

No matter what courts may want to accomplish now and in the immediate future, they are going to face human resource challenges.  The Pew Research Center says that more than 3 million Baby Boomers retired in 2020—over twice as many as in 2019—and many of these retirees were long-time public-sector employees who had institutional knowledge and expertise that is nearly impossible to replace.  These retirements are part of a larger phenomenon that has been called the “Great Resignation.”  Although the Great Resignation has been recognized in both the private and public sectors, the impact on the public sector is more severe.  Even though private-sector employment has now recovered—surpassing March 2019 levels—there were about 400,000 fewer government employees in March of 2022 than there were in March of 2019.  For many government workers who were already enduring lower salaries, apparent lack of vision, bureaucratic red tape, and antiquated workflows, the pandemic was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The current, highly polarized, partisan political atmosphere has left the public with misinformation, disinformation, and—especially regarding the justice system—the sheer absence of important information. Even without deliberate mis- or disinformation, the justice system is a field in which the lack of plain-language information creates a dangerous vacuum where any information at all is often accepted as truth. The justice system has faced push-back in efforts to implement evidence-based programs to address underlying social issues, document disparities in the system, and develop alternatives to traditional civil and criminal justice practices.  This reality has implications in basic matters of racial equity and, importantly, in policies and programs designed to address such issues as substance abuse, behavioral health, housing, pretrial detention, sentencing, and collections enforcement.  A number of session presentations at this conference focus on these topics.  It is difficult enough when some people refuse to accept objective facts, but the proponents of justice and performance improvement are at an even greater disadvantage when there is opposition to gathering even basic data to support evidence-based decisions.  How else can we assess the real strengths and weaknesses of the status quo?

I am heartened by discussions I’ve had with NACM members over the past year on strategies to work through some of these challenges, and I encourage us all to discuss these challenges among our NACM colleagues throughout this conference. For newer NACM members, know that there is incredible experience in this organization. I frequently learn and hone strategies to work through difficult situations from NACM colleagues. Different ways to truly hear what interests underlie positions, different ways to look at challenges, different ways to bring people together, and different ways to attack challenges before us. I call on us all to recommit ourselves to really learning about the challenges before us, so that we can tackle and overcome them together.

Sharing/Collaboration Partnerships

NACM is an organization about public service through the leadership and management of courts. A critical part of serving the public effectively is collaboration towards solutions. Although these challenges are daunting, when committed court employees work together no challenge is insurmountable.  Whether working within NACM or in partnership with other organizations within the justice system, our profession helps to test new ideas and identify best practices; to establish standards; to generate mini guides and curriculum designs for building competencies and disseminating lessons learned; to provide educational webinars and conferences that promote new ideas and facilitate networking; and to advocate for change in conversations with local, state, and national officials.  Some of our partners are very familiar—CCJ, COSCA, and NASJE for example—while others may be less so—the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), the Conference of Court Public Information Officers (CCPIO), and the National Association for Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers (NAPCO), to name a few.  Of course, the National Center for State Courts features heavily in many initiatives, lending its expertise to the efforts of practitioners in the field.  And these are just some of the partners in our profession with whom we work at the national level; there are a host of regional and state associations in our profession with which NACM also works to improve the quality of justice.  There is great strength in these partnerships, and we have only begun to tap their potential. For those who are here as a representative of our partner organizations, I ask that you please stand so that we can recognize you. Can you please join me in thanking these partners? And I ask that our NACM members approach these partners sometime to better understand their work. I guarantee that if we listen deeply and speak candidly, there will be many fruitful connections and discussions.

Here are just a few examples of recent achievements in our profession in which NACM has participated:

  • the 2020 Media Guide for Today’s Courts (in collaboration with CCPIO);
  • the 2022 Adult Guardianship Guide update (with NCSC and the National College of Probate Judges);
  • the just-released Behavioral Health Guide (with NCSC and state court experts);
  • a 2022 cybersecurity webinar series as part of the Joint Technology Committee;
  • the multiyear DV Aware Project of the NCJFCJ aimed at developing knowledge, skills, and resources to prevent, respond to, and recover from domestic-violence-related threats in the courts; and
  • the multiyear #WeToo Project with the NCSC, the NCJFCJ, and the National Association of Women Judges, establishing a clearinghouse of materials and resources and developing education and training tools for judges and court administrators that focus on workplace harassment and bias.

Of course, many of the sessions at this conference feature further examples of notable efforts within our profession. I call on us all to renew, create, and nurture collaborative relationships that make us all smarter, stronger, and better.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Over the past two years, NACM has also recommitted itself to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the association, as well as in our court systems, and we have established a now-permanent standing DEI Committee. With thanks to many for their tremendous efforts over two years, we have also incorporated DEI-related content into several of the 13 CORE curricula.  The Board has undertaken exercises to build DEI awareness and skills and incorporated DEI values and goals within NACM’s strategic planning. 

During the business meeting on Monday, you heard about some of the efforts of the DEI Committee; they bear repeating.  To continue to build awareness and pique the curiosity of court professionals about DEI issues, the committee’s work has run the gamut from social-media posts to webinars.  The committee has supported, along with the Board and the Conference Planning Committee, the inclusion of DEI sessions at our midyear conference and this annual conference.  We have a DEI webinar in development for the fall, a DEI book club, new questions in our annual membership survey to assess the demographics of our membership, and efforts to share DEI content with our partners.  In addition, the committee has begun to develop a more comprehensive resource—a DEI guide.  This guide will be a resource for courts and court leaders who are enthusiastically seeking progress with genuine curiosity and a firm commitment to learn and educate others.  We are grateful to the State Justice Institute for its support of this guide and look forward to the guide’s completion over the coming year.

I am encouraged that approximately 95 percent of respondents to our recent membership survey believe that NACM provides an environment for the free and open expression of ideas, opinions, and beliefs. But I know we must work hard to maintain this environment, and we can do better. Approximately 83 percent shared that diversity and inclusion is one of their court’s stated values or priority areas, yet more than half opined that their courts need more training or awareness on these issues. Fellow NACM members, NACM resources, and NACM activities can help.

NACM has also joined the DEI Collaborative, whose mission is to identify, design, and implement coordinated actions between its member organizations to improve diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence 1) on the bench and in the legal profession, 2) among court managers and staff, and 3) among dispute resolution and mental health professionals and all contributors to court operations. Ultimately, we wish to improve and deliver new, effective, and culturally relevant court outcomes for the communities that we serve. 

I also want to acknowledge that our members and others in the profession are addressing DEI locally. Our own Zenell Brown has done a webinar for the Michigan Diversity Council and written a short book on having conversations around inclusivity. Edwin Bell and other NACM members and partners continue their work on the Blueprint for Racial Justice. The Fourth Judicial District of Oregon (that’s the Portland area) has engaged in a number of internal efforts to promote diversity, including discussions among staff, affinity groups, and more. Both judges and court staff marched in the Pride parade through Portland. They all wore shirts stating, “The verdict is in . . . Love Wins.” Many others in our profession are involved in state and local diversity and access-to-justice committees. Know that we as NACM and the profession support your efforts. Love should always win.

At this point, I want to pause just a moment to thank my immediate predecessors, former NACM presidents Will Simmons and T.J. BeMent, for the leadership that they have provided the past two years in advancing our justice efforts with respect to DEI. Let’s give them a round of applause.  I call on each of us to remain engaged because we understand that our work will not be completed until all persons, in our courts and our society, are treated as if they belong, and they feel that they do as well.

Encourage Creativity: Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something Different

The changes that are necessary to advance justice begin with a willingness to do things differently—if only to try something new to your court. Our profession has learned a great deal in the past 50 years or so about best practices and the competencies needed for good court management, but we still have too much difficulty or unwillingness in implementing the lessons we have learned. It took a pandemic to force us to widely implement technologies for remote work and virtual hearings that have been around for years. As Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, of my home state of Michigan, remarked about the pandemic, it was “not the disruption we wanted, but the disruption we needed” to overcome unreasonable fears about change. Virtual proceedings and remote work are not ideal or preferable for everything we must do in the courts, but they are sometimes better for our workers as well as the public whom we serve. We should not—indeed, we cannot—return completely to the traditional methods of court operations as they were before the pandemic.

An example of how courts can address challenges through an innovative mindset can be found right here in Milwaukee. In 2018 the Milwaukee Municipal Court began a different approach to address the challenge of many defendants failing to appear at hearings to resolve their municipal violations. In the fall of that year, the court made a presentation to local service organizations to assist in resolving outstanding cases. These cases involved outstanding warrants and driver’s license suspensions that impeded individuals’ ability to access housing and employment. In 2019 the court truly “went to the people.” Judge Derek Mosley, a bailiff, two courtroom clerks, and an IT support person went to the Guest House—which is a housing, education, and service center for the city’s homeless—to allow clients to appear in an environment they trusted. With the support of their case managers, these individuals overcame the fear they had of being immediately arrested. Many of the cases were so old they were dismissed. For cases that were not dismissed, a future court date was set to monitor individuals’ progress while warrants and driver’s license suspensions were immediately lifted.

Post-pandemic, the municipal court now holds in-person court every three weeks at sites around Milwaukee, bringing court to the people and allowing court-users to move quickly through the justice system and stabilize their lives. Soon, the court will be able to provide online options for hearing-date registration without individuals having to call the court. Such practices are also saving staff time and resources, which may help retain court employees.

But changes that improve justice don’t always require inventing something new. We already know so much about how courts can work better across a range of operational competencies, including how to improve current challenges involving workforce recruitment and retention. We just need to take the steps to do them. Professional associations like NACM can help through educational, mentoring, and networking activities that share experiences and develop managerial competencies. Some steps to retain government employees and keep them motivated to perform at their very best are as basic as providing consistent encouragement and employee recognition, constructive feedback, and ongoing training and mentorship. Where possible, offer a hybrid work schedule and eliminate repetitive, manual tasks with automation; as I mentioned a moment ago, we have learned during the pandemic that courts can operate far more flexibly than we once imagined. Additional funds will not always be available, but court leaders can develop credibility with state and local officials and work with them when there are opportunities to make necessary hires and to provide pay increases. Such was the case with the American Rescue Plan Act, and federal grants and other resources should not be overlooked.

Understand that organizational culture is a foundational aspect of talent retention and many other court improvements. Consider your courts’ daily operations and how everyday habits impact culture. Remind employees of the important civic purposes and responsibilities of courts and create both short-term and long-term goals that everyone can work toward. Emphasize work-life balance, employee development, and good health practices; employee well-being has become a major issue during and in the wake of the pandemic and can contribute to performance. Encourage employees to work together and play together; a sense of community in the workplace can achieve wonders. Don’t be overwhelmed by thinking that you need to completely transform your court’s culture overnight; recognize that shaping the right culture takes time, and staffing turnover can sometimes create opportunities for positive cultural change, including greater diversity and inclusion. I call on each of us to rethink a few prior decisions until we find an area where we genuinely and prudently change our minds in light of new facts, circumstances, or priorities. In other words, let’s all learn something new and take a prudent risk to try it out.


The areas I highlighted this morning are areas identified in the last Voice of the Profession survey. I encourage us all to share our voice in the next Voice of the Profession survey to keep our organization vibrant and current.  I also want to emphasize for each and every one here that public trust and confidence in our justice system would wither without your courageous, even if often quiet, leadership in your own court and community and despite the personal and professional challenges you face. This is the value of your work. I want to underscore how much I and the NACM Board appreciate the work that you do daily. Let us all take to heart our “Call to Action” to lead the way in advancing justice. Be well and have a wonderful remainder of the conference!


Kathy Griffin is court administrator, 45th Circuit Court, St. Joseph County, Missouri, and immediate past president of NACM.