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Gov. Council approves Mass. high court nominee

Associated Press | 12/14/2010, 7:04 p.m.
The Governor’s Council confirmed Supreme Judicial Court Justice Roderick Ireland’s...
The Governor’s Council confirmed Supreme Judicial Court Justice Roderick Ireland’s nomination as chief justice of the state’s highest court. He is pictured here with his wife Alice Alexander at Lighthouse Hospice Foundation’s second annual The Light of Compassion Gala. Bishoff Communications

Roderick Ireland won confirmation last week as the first black chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and said one of his top goals is making the court system more user-friendly.

The Governor’s Council voted 7-0 to back Gov. Deval Patrick’s nomination of Ireland, who was appointed to the state’s highest court in 1997 by former Gov. William Weld. One member of the panel was absent.

Ireland said he wants to make sure the courts are responsive to citizens’ needs, whether that means handling emergency cases after hours or publicizing a judicial evaluation system that allows those who use the courts to leave comments.

“I have several goals,” Ireland told reporters in Patrick’s office following the confirmation vote. “One is to try to make the court system more user-friendly. Another is to educate the public about how the system works.”

He said he also was worried about whether the state’s ongoing fiscal challenges could force court closings and layoffs that could affect the ability to provide key services.

Ireland steps in as top judge at a time when the judicial system is grappling with a scathing report suggesting the Probation Department hired and promoted some employees based on legislative support and in exchange for a bigger budget appropriation from the House and Senate.

The SJC had commissioned the report.

Ireland said he didn’t want to comment directly since some of the issues raised in the report could come before the court, but he said he was “stuck by the dimensions and the depth of the maneuvering that went on” in the hiring process.

Ireland also said there were criminal investigations ongoing, including a probe by the state attorney general and a plan by the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts to use a grand jury to investigate some of the issues raised in the report.

The SJC has established a task force, and the Legislature and Patrick said they will appoint a commission to draft legislation to overhaul the Probation Department.

“We should let this play out, let the agencies do what they need to do,” Ireland said.

Ireland was the first black justice in the 318-year history of the court. He replaces Margaret Marshall, who left her office last Tuesday night for the final time.

Ireland downplayed the historic nature of his confirmation, saying he will be chief justice “for everyone, not just for black citizens.”

Patrick, recently re-elected to a second term, and the state’s first black governor, said he was proud of Ireland’s confirmation.

The court gained national attention in 2003 when it voted to make Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage. Ireland was part of the 4-3 majority that sided with Marshall, who authored the ruling.

Moments before the panel’s vote, Councilor Thomas Merrigan praised Ireland.

“He has a breadth of experience that is absolutely unparalleled,” Merrigan said.

At 65, Ireland can serve as chief justice for just five years before reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age.

He has recently served as the court’s senior jurist. He previously served on the Massachusetts Appeals Court for seven years and the Boston Juvenile Court for almost 13 years.

Ireland, who grew up in Springfield, received his bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University, his juris doctorate from Columbia University Law School, a master’s from Harvard Law School and a doctorate from Northeastern University.

The chief justice administers the seven-member court and oversees the Massachusetts trial and appellate court systems. Another key power of the chief justice is the authority to decide which justice writes an opinion.

Patrick would get to pick Ireland’s replacement as associate justice. He already has made two appointments to the court.

Marshall announced her retirement in July, saying she wanted to spend more time with her ailing husband, former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Associated Press