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Governor’s Council still in eye of storm

Many, including critics, seek seats

If you haven’t heard of the Governor’s Council, you’re not alone. If you have, it may be for all the wrong reasons — the grandstanding, bickering, and sideshow antics that have fueled a recent state Senate bid to abolish the obscure but important body.

Despite all of that — or, maybe, because of it — 27 people are vying for one of eight seats on the council in Thursday’s primaries. And even some of them want to eliminate it.

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“I don’t think it can exist as is,” said Nick Bernier, a 27-year-old Swansea lawyer and one of three Democrats running in the First District. “Something needs to happen. But while we have it, it can do a lot of mischief currently as it exists.”

The chief job of the council, a colonial vestige, is voting on nominees to the state judiciary, the 411 judges and 85 clerk-magistrates who receive lifetime appointments.

After several years in which council meetings rarely exceeded 10 minutes, a confluence of high-profile nominations and colorful, controversial behavior at hearings has drawn scrutiny and sparked calls for a council shake-up.

Some of the most unorthodox questioning of judicial nominees has come from Fall River’s Charles Cipollini, a First District councilor, retired math teacher, and Republican who wants more judges who share his socially conservative views.

Cipollini, 70, grilled one high court nominee about polygamy and asked her to rate her political views, with “ ‘A’ standing for most conservative and ‘F’ standing for most liberal. ” He asked another high court nominee about Jack Kevorkian and delivered a rambling soliloquy during another nominee’s hearing that concluded with a line about eating birthday cake on Mars.

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Because the council is charged with considering the demeanor and temperament of potential judges,critics like to point out blemishes on councilors’ records as well as inflammatory behavior .

Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney, for example, has been cited multiple times for driving an unregistered vehicle and received probation after an alleged altercation with a clerk. Devaney, who frequently challenges nominees on their history of political contributions, has twice drawn scrutiny for claims she failed to properly report campaign loans.

Councilor Mary-Ellen Manning, who has also decried political influence peddling, was found in a 2010 Globe investigation to have called the probation commissioner seeking a job for her brother. She is leaving to join the state Senate race.

Councilor Thomas T. Merrigan, a former judge, warned last year that the panel was “sowing the seeds of our demise” with its antics.

Merrigan remains a proponent of the council as a final, public step in a judicial selection process that begins with a 21-member, governor-appointed nominating commission and that includes review by a committee from the state and Boston bar associations.

Making judges solicit donations and run for office, as in many states, would be a worse system, Merrigan said, while transferring the council’s duties to the Senate or others should not be done lightly after 230 years.

Rather than eliminate the council, he said, “we have to believe in the long-term view of the electoral process [ousting] officeholders who ought not to be there.”

Still, even the candidates for the council know that few pay attention to the race. When a reporter called for Harry S. Margolis, one of Devaney’s two primary challengers, his wife was so surprised she responded with, “Oh, awesome!” Another candidate, Robert Jubinville, one of four Second District Democrats seeking to succeed the late Kelly Timilty, responded to a message instantly. “If there’s one man interested in the Governor’s Council besides me, I call him,” he said.

Even Devaney, vying for an eighth two-year term, said she is laboring for people to tune in, recounting an exchange with her regular supermarket checkout clerk.

“I said, ‘David, I have a $20 bill in my hand, and it’s yours if you can tell me the date of the state primary,’ ” Devaney said. The money was in no danger of changing hands.

Devaney, a 74-year-old Watertown grandmother, said she is targeted for ouster because of what she described as a probing, independent style. She said she has delivered on pledges, including securing a ban on nominees donating to executive branch officers. She called her personal issues simply matters of misunderstanding, and said the way she was treated over the 2007 beauty supply-shop incident underscored the value of a fair judiciary.

“Now I know what can happen to an innocent person,” Devaney said.

The recent flare-ups and skirmishes between some councilors and judicial nominees have defined the council’s reputation at the expense of all its members and its wider work, said Martin W. Healy, general counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association. And it has deterred some qualified nominees from applying for the bench, he said.

The council dates to 1628, when the British king established it as a check on his overseas colonial governor. John Adams enshrined the latter-day version in the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 to provide “advice and consent” for the new state’s chief executive.

Half a century ago, its powers were curtailed by lawmakers and voters, after eight councilors were imprisoned for corruption and bribery.

The diminished version has endured as a part-time gig paying $26,000 annually, plus benefits.

As a constitutional office, the council can be altered or eliminated only by legislative approval at two constitutional conventions, followed by statewide ballot. Senator Brian A. Joyce of Milton led an effort last year to eliminate the council, and he won support from many colleagues, including the Senate president, before losing steam with House leaders.

“We looked like we were going so well,” Joyce said, glumly. Making the best of it, he is now endorsing a council candidate — Jubinville, a trial lawyer and former State Police detective with four decades of courtroom experience.

“Candidly, if we had people of his caliber and qualification serving,” Joyce said, “I would perhaps lighten up on my [abolition] efforts.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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