Clerk of Courts Laura Gentile Has a Lot on Her DocketFor almost two decades, Laura Gentile has been exposed to plenty of things she’d rather not think about — violent crimes, sex offenders, families torn apart, and much more. As a parent, it affects her.
“My son says I worry about him too much,” she told BusinessWest, “but it’s because I’ve seen so much over the years.”
That boy was just a toddler when Gentile left her position at her family’s law firm 18 years ago to become an assistant clerk in Hampden County Superior Court.
“That’s how I got my start in the field of law,” said Gentile, who earned her law degree at Western New England College. “I initially worked with my father and brother at a law firm called Santaniello, Posnik & Basile. It was great fun, but then the opportunity came up to be an assistant clerk. My son was 2 at the time, and it provided more regular hours. So I decided, even though I loved practicing law, that it was in his best interest that I take more stable hours.”
And 16 years later, she decided it was time for another change — this one rather unexpected — when Clerk of Courts Brian Lees decided in early 2012 not to run for that position again. Gentile believed her many years in that office qualified her for the clerk’s job, and those sentiments were supported by collegues who encouraged her to run.
She did, and eventually prevailed in a crowded Democratic primary before running unopposed in the November election. All through that often-contentious campaign, she said that experience — not just in managing an office, which some of her opponents had, but as a lawyer — was the key to handling the position effectively.
And 13 months into her tenure, she believes she’s more than validated that argument.
She said her experience both as a lawyer and in the clerk’s office has helped her make some needed changes — in matters such as cross-training personnel, for example — and with some issues that some might consider out of the clerk’s purview.
At the top of that list has been her recent, and persistent, efforts to convince the Legislature, the press, and anyone else who will listen that the 35-year-old Hampden County Hall of Justice must be replaced with a more modern, better-located facility.
In reference to the former, she said many courtrooms are too small and the technology being used is old and obsolete. As for the latter, she said the probable construction of a $1 billion casino across State Street from the Hall of Justice is a nightmare in the making.
“MGM is going to be built,” she said, adding that, between the probable highway reconstruction and then constant casino traffic, she worries about accessibility issues for the courthouse. “I think it will be very problematic. I’m not sure the powers that be have focused on that enough, to find out what our impact will be. Before they start to build the casino, I think somebody needs to look at that. That’s my first concern.”
For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest sits down with Gentile to talk about the expansive responsibilities of her office, the physical limitations of the courthouse, and the kinds of cases she has dealt with closely over the years — and have caused her so much parental anxiety.
Face of the Court
“I knew what the job entailed,” she explained. “What has been challenging for me, but in a good way, an exciting way, is dealing with the administrative, managerial aspect of it. And I know that my experience as an assistant clerk for 16 years provided me with the skills to effectively manage this office.”
It’s an office that those with law degrees understand and greatly respect, but one that most not in that profession need a primer on. So Gentile offered one.
“The Superior Court clerk’s office in Springfield is, essentially, where every case, criminal and civil, begins and ends,” she explained. “If it’s a civil case, it begins with the lawyer filing a complaint and us taking it over the counter. We keep all the records, anything that goes into the court or comes out of the court. On the criminal side, it begins with an indictment; we take the indictments and we process them. Again, we start a file, and anything that goes into court or out of court comes through us.
“Once the case goes to trial, we are responsible for assisting the court, and we’re the conduit between the court and the jury for many things,” she continued. “We keep all exhibits, all evidence; we’re responsible for storing it. When the case is concluded, whether it’s civil or criminal, we close it up. And we’re always a conduit between the lawyers and the court. We’re the face of the court, basically.”
When she moved into the clerk’s office, she recognized some things that needed changing.
“One thing I set about doing was cross-training employees,” she said, noting that this initiative was launched out of sheer necessity — there are currently nine assistant clerks doing the work once handled by 12.
“Over the years, I realized that work came to a halt if someone was on vacation or out sick because only that person did that particular job,” she explained. I didn’t think that was an effective or efficient way to run an office, so one of the first things I did was cross-train employees, so now the work continues to flow.”
Another problem, she explained, was that bail monies were not always accounted for when transferred between courts. “For instance, bail that should be in Superior Court was still in the outlying district court, and there was no procedure in place to make sure that bail got transferred to this office. So I completely revamped that procedure.
“Again, it’s the knowledge I had being in this office for many years that gave me the skills to do all those things and make these different changes,” she added. “I hardly consider myself any kind of bookkeeper or anything like that, but just knowing the procedure and the legal aspect of how bail goes from one court to another made it very easy for me to come up with a procedure and policy to follow to make sure we’re getting the bail money that needs to be transferred here.”
Those are just two examples, Gentile said, in a job that offers something new to tackle every day.
“That’s what I like about the job. This morning, walking in, someone stopped me and said, ‘I can’t believe the way the office is being run.’ Everyone is so happy and more efficient, and it makes me feel good to hear that. From the feedback I’m getting, the people who work here seem much happier. My philosophy is, if you’re happy at work, you’re going to come to work and do a good job. And I think that’s what’s happening here.”
Assisting the Assistants
Gentile said she can still do the work of an assistant clerk, in a pinch, but they have their own broad set of responsibilities. There are eight courtrooms in Superior Court — six criminal and two civil — and a judge is assigned to each courtroom. “I assign an assistant clerk to each judge for the month, or a session; a session begins the first Monday of the month. Each clerk is responsible for his or her session.”
Assistant clerks prepare cases for trial, work with the judge to select and empanel the jury, and handle all the evidence and exhibits — and the paperwork attendant to all these roles.
These days, “I spend most of my time in the office because there are duties I have to attend to every day for the managerial, administrative aspect of the job. In the courtroom, you’re primarily dealing with the judge,” Gentile said, noting that the assistant clerk is responsible for bringing motions for the judge to rule on, then getting the responses back to the office so they can be processed.
Cases run the gamut — including serious crimes such as murder, home invasion, assault and battery, and robberies.
“We deal with life felonies all the time,” she said, noting that last year’s murder trial involving a Domino’s pizza driver wound up in both criminal and civil court, when the victim’s family sued the pizza chain for wrongful death. “In that case, the criminal case is the underlying basis for bringing the civil action against Domino’s; in their contention, Domino’s was negligent in carrying out their responsibility to their employee.”
Civil cases can include some serious matters as well, including ‘Mary Moe’ cases involving minor girls seeking the permission of the court to have an abortion. “We talk them through that procedure,” Gentile said.
Superior Court also processes SDPSs, or sexually dangerous person cases, which deal with the question of releasing someone convicted of a sexual crime back into the community, and a judge must determine whether that person is still a public risk. “Even though it feels like a criminal case, and it’s sort of administered as a criminal case, technically it’s a civil case,” Gentile explained.
Often in such cases, the district attorney’s office is the plaintiff, trying to block an impending release, but many times, the convicted individual initiates the process. “They’re entitled to ask for a review periodically to have their case presented, and they hope to have some new information that would allow them to be released.”
A Gamble for the Court?
Gentile has recently added a new line to her job description — that of being a vocal advocate for building a new Hampden County Hall of Justice. She’s working with state Sen. Gale Candaras and other legislators to bring courthouse issues to the state’s attention, and has won considerable attention in the local press.
“There are some really compelling issues that I feel warrant us getting a new courthouse,” she told BusinessWest. “I know people say, ‘this courthouse is only 30 years old; why do we need a new courthouse?’ What people don’t understand is, the money is there for new courthouses; it’s just a matter of, is it going to be built someplace where they need it more than we do, or built someplace where it’s not needed as much as we do? That’s the reason for advocacy — not because, ‘hey, we need a newer, prettier building.’”
To Gentile, the question comes down to MGM’s plans to build a casino across the street. If the plan is approved by the state’s Gaming Commission — and most observers believe it will — there will be traffic problems during a construction process expected to take at least two years, and then more when the resort casino opens.
But it’s not her only issue. Space has become a problem as well; five of the six criminal courtrooms aren’t big enough by modern standards, a dearth of elevators leads to waits of 15 to 20 minutes in the morning, and security isn’t state of the art.
“Our court officers are not allowed to carry guns or weapons, and there’s really no mechanism in place, no technology in place, to be able to alert other officers when there’s a problem. They have to rely on these antiquated radios,” she said.
“And there’s no technology in the building as far as wi-fi and things of that nature. In the courtroom, we still have a DVD player with knobs on it,” she said, adding that modern courthouses rely much more on cutting-edge, wireless technology, rather than grappling with cords and plugs.
In addition, “the lockup facility is way too small, and that segues into constitutional issues; there’s really no place a lawyer can have a private conversation with his client,” she said, while space to store evidence is tight as well.
But the casino remains her number-one concern. “I like it here, but I just don’t think anyone has taken a look at what the impact of the casino is going to be if we remain in this location.”
Modern courtrooms are designed for safety for a reason, Gentile said, noting that it’s a running joke among her colleagues that she always seemed to be the clerk when a defendant totally lost his composure.
“I’ve been in the courtroom on a number of those occasions when a defendant was found guilty,” she said. “Two cases come to mind immediately, both murder cases, where the defendant flipped out. Both times it was because he heard his mother crying, and that was the trigger, and he went crazy.
“I remember one case where it took something like three court officers and two police officers that had been in the courtroom because they were involved in the case, plus the defendant’s lawyer, to subdue this man, who was a really big guy,” she recalled. “He was literally right next to me, and I had nowhere to go; I was basically trapped, unless I wanted to jump over the desk — and I would have, had he gotten any closer to me.
“In these situations,” she continued, “you need to know how to act quickly and calmly, and you have to know how to assist the judge and how to assist the jurors, who are very, very frightened. You need to look out for the court staff and make sure that you can get help.”
She praised her courthouse’s officers as being particularly adept at analyzing situations and recognizing when additional security needs to be on hand.
“We don’t have nearly as many melees as we would if we didn’t have such good court officers,” she said. “But as an assistant clerk, your responsibility is to the entire courtroom.”
She doesn’t get the same opportunities these days, of being in the courtroom and making sure proceedings run smoothly and justice is done — a role that extends from responding to those occasional melees to informing the judge if a juror is falling asleep.
“The clerk is a conduit between the judge and everyone else in the courtroom,” Gentile said. “Everything goes through the clerk.”
And now, the whole office goes through her. It’s a challenge she courts every day.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]