Peter Sacks, former deputy chief of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s government bureau, was recently named head of the newly created Office of the State Solicitor, which represents the state before the Supreme Judicial Court and other appellate courts. Boston Globe reporter Jenifer B. McKim talked with Sacks, a Harvard-educated lawyer, about why he took the job, what he hopes to accomplish, and why he’s stayed in government for more than 25 years.
You first started working in the AG’s office when Michael Dukakis was governor and Ronald Reagan was president. What’s kept you there all these years?
It’s a chance to do good. I don’t have to get up every morning and ask myself, “Do I believe in what I am doing?” Even if I don’t always agree with every single position I have to defend, at least that position was ultimately the product of elected officials or people they appointed making the best decisions they could to serve the public interest.
Tell me about any of those positions you weren’t happy about defending.
As governors have come and gone, some of [their] decisions have not been in sync with my personal beliefs. That is something most lawyers learn to do, put aside their personal beliefs.
How has the Office of the Attorney General — in big or small ways — changed since when you first started?
We’ve gotten better. Every attorney general makes some innovations. For example, Attorney General Coakley created the The Business, Technology, and Economic Development Division in 2007 to make sure business has a voice and an advocate within the office. I’m looking forward to working with them to make sure the varying perspectives of business are taken into account in our state and federal courts.
Why does the state need an Office of the State Solicitor?
I will have oversight of all the appeals the attorney general’s office handles and all of the friend-of-the-court briefs we file in our state and federal appellate courts. My goal is to ensure the highest quality appellate advocacy and make sure we take consistent positions. We have a tremendously talented group of attorneys here. If there is one thing I’ve learned over my years here, [it] is we can always do better.
What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
My first job is going to be to survey the landscape to get a handle on all the appeals that are pending. We have a very broad mandate and we handle a lot of different cases in a lot of different courts. And then, in coordination with Attorney General Coakley, to identify the cases where the state solicitor can be of the most assistance.
What are some of the cases on your radar?
I don’t want to talk about current cases. We have so many that affect different areas — environmental, consumer protection, criminal, protecting the rights of workers, ensuring that public bidding laws are properly enforced.
What about recent appellate cases that the AG’s office has influenced?
We have had a real impact over the last couple of years in some Supreme Court cases, like the health care case, the case that upheld Obamacare in 2012. An Amicus brief that our office wrote was cited by the Supreme Court in that decision.
What about cases in Massachusetts?
We were just involved in a case challenging how the criminal justice system was going to respond to the Annie Dookhan problems at the state drug lab. [Dookhan is the state lab chemist charged with mishandling and tampering with evidence.] We defended the Superior Court in a challenge to some procedures that they set up to make sure defendants whose cases may have been influenced by Dookhan were treated fairly. The Supreme Judicial Court ended up agreeing with our arguments.
What do you expect will be your biggest challenge this year?
Prioritizing — by which I mean, identifying the cases and issues on which the State Solicitor can have the biggest impact. It’s a challenge, but it’s also what will make my new role so interesting.