With vacancies growing, Baker could soon begin to shape judiciary

Gov. Patrick had appointed 7 of the 9 justices on the Supreme Judicial Court

Charlie Baker
(AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

BOSTON (State House News Service) – The high turnover in the state’s court system over the last eight years handed Gov. Deval Patrick an opportunity to make his mark on the judiciary.

His successor, Gov. Charlie Baker, will soon start leaving his own imprint.

Out of 411 judicial positions across state government, Patrick filled more than half during his tenure. The openings were largely caused by judges hitting the mandatory retirement age of 70, but also by a judicial salary increase last year that prompted some judges to retire with a boost in their pensions.

As Baker settled into the Corner Office, court watchers wondered how long the lack of judicial vacancies would last.

“People were concerned originally that perhaps there would be a drought of judicial openings, but there is not,” said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel and chief operating officer of the Massachusetts Bar Association.

Appeals Court Chief Justice Phillip Rapoza, plans to retire on June 30. At 65, he is five years away from the mandatory retirement age for judges, but he said in a letter to Baker he wrote in February that he wants to turn his attention to the field of “international justice.”

Rapoza was appointed to the Appeals Court in 1998; he has been the chief justice since 2006. “Those vacancies don’t come along every day,” Healy said.

The governor’s chief legal counsel has said the administration hopes to have a chief justice in place before September. That nominee, and any others, will provide the first insights into Baker’s approach.

“I would say my overall judicial philosophy is one that simply reflects what I would describe as sort of temperance and a focus on the law,” Baker said Tuesday. “My big issue is I just want to make sure whoever we appoint to the bench brings a ton of subject matter expertise and the ability and the willingness to hear all sides when they make decisions, especially when you’re talking about the higher courts.”

Healy said Baker, a Republican, has his own governing style and is considered a “social moderate.”

Baker, when asked where he was looking for his appointments, said, “I’m not a big believer in litmus tests. There’s a lot of different ways to get to the right answer on this stuff.”

The 21-member Judicial Nominating Commission, tapped by Baker to screen candidates for him, maintains a website with current and future vacancies.

The commission is a volunteer-based panel, chaired by Paul Dacier, executive vice president and general counsel of the EMC Corporation, and a former president of the Boston Bar Association.

The commission vets applicants and forwards them to the governor, who then sends the nominees to the Governor’s Council. The eight independently elected councilors vote on the governor’s nominees and over the years the vast majority of nominees have been approved.

The lieutenant governor chairs the council during its weekly meetings, and on rare occasions has broken ties on judicial nominees.

According to the Judicial nominating commission’s site, aside from the Rapoza retirement, there are other openings on the 25-member Appeals Court due to the retirement of Joseph Grasso (Jan. 9), and Malcolm Graham (Feb. 22). The application deadline for those seats has passed.

Associate Justices Marc Kantrowitz and Francis Fecteau are expected to retire from the Appeals Court in August and September, respectively.

There are four vacancies on the Superior Court, including seats left by Diane Kottmyer, Frances McIntyre, Patrick Brady and Carol Ball.

A circuit opening exists on the Probate and Family Court, with Spencer Kagan, and there are a number of District Court openings.

Two District Court vacancies, one in Springfield and the other in Pittsfield, are in the process of being filled.

Alexander Sands is expected to retire this summer from the state’s Land Court.

“I know each vacancy precipitates hundreds of applicants and it’s tough work for the Judicial Nominating Commission,” Healy said.

The state’s highest court does not have any openings at the moment.

During his two terms, Patrick appointed five of the Supreme Judicial Court’s seven members: Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Margot Botsford, Fernande Duffly, Barbara Lenk, and Geraldine Hines.

The court’s other two members, Francis Spina and Robert Cordy, were appointed in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Spina turns 69 later this year; Cordy turned 66 in May.

More information on judicial vacancies: http://www.mass.gov/governor/administration/jnc/vacancies/vacancies.html

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