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Patrick picks state's first black chief justice

Associated Press | 11/9/2010, 6:19 p.m.

Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, nominated Roderick L. Ireland last week to be the first African American chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).

Ireland, now the senior associate justice on the high court, would replace the retiring Chief Justice Margaret Marshall if he’s confirmed by the Governor’s Council, a process that could take as little as a month.

“We are making history again today,” Patrick said, noting Marshall had been the court’s first female chief justice.

Nonetheless, the governor insisted race was a “secondary or tertiary” consideration.

“The most important thing was to get a nominee who was going to be absolutely committed to the fair administration of justice, who could understand the issues that come before the court are issues that involve human beings, trying to sort out their problems and resolve their disputes, and that there are faces behind those concepts,” Patrick said during a Statehouse news conference.

Ireland, a native of Springfield’s racially mixed Hill neighborhood, said, “My nomination says that anything is possible no matter where you come from or what your background is.”

Frederick Hurst, a black attorney and newspaper publisher who has been Ireland’s friend since childhood, beamed as he watched, saying afterward he was proud of the high achievement by someone from “the ‘hood.” He described Ireland as both smart and funny.

Ireland was appointed to the SJC in 1997 by then-Republican Gov. William F. Weld, making him the first black justice in the 318-year history of the oldest appellate court in continuous operation in the Western Hemisphere. He previously served on the Massachusetts Appeals Court for seven years and the Boston Juvenile Court for almost 13 years.

Ireland received his bachelor’s from Lincoln University, his juris doctorate from Columbia University Law School, a master’s from Harvard Law School and a doctorate from Northeastern University.

During his swearing-in ceremony, Ireland said he would likely be the first justice mistaken for a parking valet — an incident that occurred at his daughter’s wedding two years earlier in Boston.

The son of a painter and schoolteacher, Ireland also mentioned being advised by a high school guidance counselor to try trade school instead of pursuing college.

Last Thursday, he said breaking racial barriers was not a conscious pursuit.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always just tried to focus on doing the best job that I could do and not worry about the implications,” he said. “My goal has been to perform at my highest level possible, and I’ll let other people interpret that in terms of race.”

Ireland is 65 and can be chief justice for only five years before reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age.

He did not dispute reports that he had initially refused the nomination, laughing as he surrendered the podium to Patrick to answer. The governor said, “I’m not going to get into all the backing and forthing.”

The chief justice administers the seven-member court and oversees the Massachusetts trial and appellate court systems.

Marshall has resisted budget-cutting efforts, and Patrick said he did not extract a promise from Ireland for the courts to help him close a projected $2 billion deficit next year.