That Was Then, This is Now: A 40 Year Retrospective of Life
as a Judicial Branch Employee
Reflecting on 42 years of dedicated service to the Court of Common Pleas, Carole Kirshner spoke fondly about her recent retirement party thrown in her honor. "The party meant a lot to me. It made me proud of what I had achieved when I saw everyone there who wanted to be there," said Carole who retired from her position as Court Administrator on July 1, 2012. Reminiscing about her years with the Court, she noted that the most important part of her job was the help that she was able to provide to people over the years. Carole recently sat down with the Administrative Office of the Courts to talk about her career and changes in the Judicial Branch and share her thoughts on the challenges for the next decade.
AOC: When did you begin working for the Court of Common Pleas?
Carole: I started with the Court in 1970. I graduated from the University of Delaware with a history degree and my first job was in social work. The job was very intense with long hours. So I took the summer off, but by August ran out of money. The position as a typist for the Court Reporter in the Court of Common Pleas was available – there were few jobs at the time – and I only intended to stay six months. Work was slow. So I would ask others if I could assist with different tasks and ended up learning just about everything there was to know about the Court. When I started in 1970, the Court of Common Pleas was still a County court – it became a statewide court in 1973. I was appointed Deputy Clerk for New Castle County in 1972 when the prior Deputy Clerk retired, appointed Chief Clerk for New Castle County in 1974, and became Chief Clerk of the Statewide court in 1976. The position of Chief Clerk of the Statewide court is unique among all the other court administrators as it gives me authority to issue process and other powers which the other administrators don't have. There has been some talk about changing the statute, but it's still in there.
AOC: What are some of the differences in the Courts now as compared to when you first started?
Carole: Location for one. I worked out of the old courthouse. In my early years with the Court, the courthouse was really more like a community center – the city and county had offices in the building. People came to do lots of things at the courthouse – not just court business. People got married at the courthouse and they paid taxes and applied for licenses at the courthouse. Going to court was just another thing that the public did in the building. All of that contributed to a greater sense of community and, I believe, lessened concern for the extensive security we see today.
Getting through security now can take time. People have to give up their cell phones and take off their belts, for example. All of this focus on security, while important, tends to separate the people coming to do business at the courthouse from those who work here. I think it's important for court employees to bridge the divide and to connect with our visitors in order to overcome the barriers. Staff should always be reminded that this is more than just a place to come to work. For many, contact with the court will change their lives in some significant way and we need to be cognizant of that. For years, I've encouraged my staff to reach out to our visitors. It really makes a difference. Treating all court visitors with respect is, in my view, the most important part of the job.
AOC: To what do you attribute the increased need for security? Do you think there is a greater threat of violence now than when you first started with the Courts?
Carole: I don't know if the threat is greater or if news about violent incidents is just more readily available. Now you can find out about something that happened in some small town on the other side of the world within minutes. It's all out there and staring us in the face through our computers, social media, and cable television.
The City of Wilmington has also changed over the years, but there was violence in the City 40 years ago as well. In the late 60's, there were riots in downtown Wilmington and the National Guard occupied the city for 1 ½ years. And yet, we really didn't worry too much about courthouse security in those days. I remember one incident in Judge Wahl's courtroom when a defendant pulled a gun out in open court. "I have a gun. Here it is," said the litigant pulling it (just a starter gun, but who knew at the time?) out of his coat pocket and pointing it at the Judge in response to the Judge's question about carrying a concealed weapon. The courtroom let out a collective gasp. Calmly directing the litigant to approach the bench and place the weapon into his hand, Judge Wahl commanded "put it right here, right on my desk." And the litigant did just that. Court went on without missing a beat. That would never happen today.
Since 9/11, security concerns have been brought into the public's consciousness in a very real way. But increased security efforts were well underway in the 90's. It's always a balancing act as the court is wary about creating too much of a police presence inside the courtroom out of concern that it might have a chilling effect on the way we conduct business. We're not the police. Our job is to ensure that the court is always a neutral party and that cases are fairly adjudicated. The court has resisted putting bailiffs into police style uniforms for that reason.
AOC: We know that technology has led to sweeping changes in almost every aspect of daily life. What are some of the changes you have witnessed as a result of technological advances?
Carole: Many of the speeches at the retirement party mentioned the technological changes that I've lived through. While it's true that I've seen many changes in technology, what I notice is the impact that technology has had on the way we do business. Of course, when I started everything was typewritten using carbon copy paper. I can remember the very first Xerox machine we had in our office. Eighty percent of the time the copies it made were fine; 20% of the time the originals (that were pulled into the machine) were burned and you had to retype the document. I also recall the first time someone tried to sell us a fax machine. I recall telling the salesman that I could not, in my wildest imagination, see how we would ever find a use for such a thing. Six months later we were inundated for requests about fax information.
AOC: Do you think that technology has helped productivity?
Carole: Technology has provided access to an incredible amount of information at the touch of a button. For instance, Judges who used to have to rely on a defendant's recitation of their criminal history (unless a presentence report was ordered) now have that information at their finger tips. Technology has also been a time saver for some. Files that once had to be manually retrieved can be accessed through case management systems. Organization of information has improved. Reports can be generated that help us look at performance measures. However, there's a downside to all of this technology as well, most notably that there's an immediate expectation of, and demand for, information.
I believe it's also a problem to become too reliant on electronic processes. I remember an incident shortly after things became automated. We had a system failure that lasted several days. By the end of the first day we had to start to process things manually. Suddenly, staff was at a loss. I recall one particular individual being flummoxed at how she could get a file to the next person in the chain if she could not send it electronically. I can still see the astonished look on her faced when I suggested that she simply walk it across the hall.
AOC: How would you rate the Courts' ability to keep up with technology?
Carole: The public is used to being able to access information quickly. They can purchase products online, pay taxes and access their bank account, all from a computer or from their cell phone. But they still can't access information about their cases online. There are still many things that we must do either manually or in person. This inability to quickly access information leads folks to become anxious because they don't understand why they can't immediately access the information they need. The demand for information is extreme. The courts have had a difficult time keeping up. I attribute that, in part, to the natural focus of the Judiciary on precedent and tradition. That focus makes good sense in most of our work. But it also tends to make change occur more slowly than it might otherwise. We are in a transition period and have accomplished much. But we have a long way to go before we figure out how to maximize the use of these technologies to better serve the public.
AOC: What about work/life balance? Has that been affected by technology?
Carole: Yes. People rarely go away on vacation anymore without their mobile devices. That has had a significant impact on time spent out of the office. The first time I recognized this was on a trip with my husband to Washington D.C. I had a teleconference scheduled for later that day but decided that I could take it in Washington D.C. just as easily as I could if I were in the office. People from all over the country participated in the call. Several of them were calling while on vacation. And yet, no one commented that it was odd. It was just expected. I'm not sure that is a good thing. Technology has given us the ability to conduct business from almost anywhere. The lines between work and personal time are blurred.
AOC: Have you noticed any impact of technology on work culture?
Carole: Technology has definitely affected our work culture and not in a good way. Emails replace the face-to-face conversations that contributed to a sense of community. People no longer take lunches together which impacts relationships and the sense of team. Letter writing is fast becoming a lost art. These days, it's a rare occasion to get a handwritten letter. It all comes through email and the expectation for response time is almost immediate. In the past, I would read a letter and let it sit for a day or two while I decided how I would respond. This was particularly helpful if I needed to let something "settle" before formulating my response. Now, response times are expected almost instantaneously and replies are sent, often times, with little to no thought behind them. This can lead to mistakes or even an increased work load. In the past, issues that seemed like an emergency one minute somehow worked themselves out with the passing of time.
I don't think people have changed that much. They still generally want to do a good job and try their best to avoid making mistakes. But the amount of information that needs to be processed is often just too much to handle for even the most seasoned employee.
AOC: You came to the Judicial Branch at a time when there were not a lot of women in the field of law. What was your experience as a woman working for the Court?
Carole: I noticed it at the beginning and for many years I was the only woman in the various meetings that were held. Any disadvantages were very subtle, and I ignored them. I was always well treated by my court and colleagues and never felt disadvantaged. I can remember when the first woman attorney came into court. It was a big deal. Folks gathered outside of the courtroom to watch. There were no women judges in the Court of Common Pleas when I started, although Family Court had one, Judge Roxana Arsht. I remember when Judge Rosemary Beauregard was appointed as the first female judge in the Court of Common Pleas twelve years ago and when Superior Court Judge Susan Del Pesco was appointed and became the first woman president of the Delaware Bar Association. These were significant events. I believe that the courts benefits from having a mix of perspectives that is brought by different genders as well as cultures.
AOC: How did you balance your work and home life?
Carole: I had my family while working full-time for the Court. During this time, I also went to school at night to earn my Masters Degree in Public Administration at West Chester University. I don't really remember the particulars of the schedule –I just did what I had to do. My husband and I made it work. Recently, my daughter sent me an email thanking me for being a good role model. It was entitled, 'How did you do it?' She hadn't realized how much of a balancing act it is to combine parenting with everything else and was amazed at how I managed.
AOC: Wow! That was special! I'd record that on my calendar if I were you.
Carole: Absolutely! I will treasure that moment as an affirmation that all of the hard work paid off.
AOC: What are some of the challenges that you foresee facing the Judicial Branch over the next decade?
Carole: We will have to do a better job of harnessing technology if we're going to effectively meet the needs of the public. Advances in technology have, thus far, mostly meant an overload of information. While there are lots of good things that have come from it, we need to figure out a balanced approach to deal with this mountain of information and the heightened expectations about being available 24/7.
We also need to do a better job of educating the public about our court system and what we can and cannot do. Our processes need to be transparent so that people can understand them better. Over the years I've been involved in various community outreach projects in an attempt to provide education about the judicial process to our young people. That must continue. The public at large used to have a better understanding about the courts. I remember when it was common to a have a whole cadre of observers (we called them the "Court Watchers") in the Court of Common Pleas watching various proceedings. They were typically retired folks who would sit in the back in a group and watch the goings on. Sometimes the Judge would even address them about their impressions about the day's events. It was a very positive exchange for all concerned. But you don't see them anymore. I don't know why. Perhaps it's the location of the new building or heightened security that makes it difficult for them to come. Maybe technology has become their substitute source of entertainment. In any event, they are missed.
Pro se litigants will continue to be an issue for our courts. It used to be that about 75% of the people in our court were represented by counsel. Now, my guess would be that only about 25% of the people have an attorney with 75% appearing pro se. I don't see that changing. If anything, the numbers of pro se litigants are likely to go up. And unless we do a better job of handling those cases and getting information about our system out to the unrepresented litigants, we're going to have a difficult time meeting the demand.
AOC: We can't let you get away without asking the obvious question: What's next?
Carole: I have absolutely no idea. I'd like to do some traveling. And, I am working on a couple of ideas. But one thing I've learned for sure: Life has a way of working out the details.
Carole may not yet know what she will do in her retirement, but it is unlikely that this dedicated and indefatigable lady will stay idle for long. We wish her the very best in her future pursuits.
Thank you, Carole!