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Patrick backs former public safety head as district judge

Governor Deval Patrick nominated his outgoing public safety director to become a district court judge Friday, just weeks after she announced her resignation from his administration amid controversy.

In a news conference, Patrick lauded Mary Beth Heffernan’s work as secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety, her longtime record as a prosecutor, and her temperament.

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“She has, I think, really just the right touch for the district court, which is a neighborhood court; it’s very people-oriented,” the governor said, pointing out that her father was also a judge. “It’s something I know she’s had an ambition to do for a long, long time.”

Heffernan, the state’s public safety secretary since 2010, was one of several Cabinet members who stepped down in mid-December as Patrick ­entered the final two years of his second term. Patrick told reporters that no one was being forced out.

But Heffernan had been embroiled in the controversy surrounding Sheila Burgess, the state’s highway safety ­director, after the Globe reported in November that she had been hired by Heffernan and others in 2007 despite a lengthy driving record that included six crashes and several speeding violations. Heffernan, who was under­secretary at the time of the hiring, acknowledged that Burgess, a longtime Democratic consultant and fund-
raiser, should not have won the post.

The governor, when asked about the hiring controversy Friday, told reporters it was “an embarrassment, no doubt about it.” However, he sought to distance Heffernan from it by adding, “She did a great job in her role.”

Some backers, including a prominent Republican, lauded Heffernan’s longtime public service and work as a lawyer and said her work for the ­Patrick administration should not ­exclude her from service.

“Having a role in public life should never be the sole reason that somebody achieves appointment to the bench, but it never should be a bar,” said state Representative Daniel B. Winslow, a Norfolk Republican and former judge who worked with Heffernan on her criminal justice commission and praised her work and good regard in the legal community.

“Certainly the confirmation process is the opportunity for appropriate inquiry to be made of questions anyone has — including the Burgess situation,” Winslow added. “I would fully expect governor’s councilors to embrace their roles as vetting agents.”

A spokesman for the Massachusetts Republican Party, however, immediately issued a derisive statement about the nomination.

“Let’s hope she is a more competent judge than she was at running the Department of Public Safety, where she was ­responsible for hiring a reckless driver as highway safety chief,” GOP spokesman Tim Buckley said.

State Representative Eugene O’Flaherty, a Charlestown ­Democrat who until recently chaired the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, called ­Heffernan courteous and professional and said she “took her role very seriously.”

O’Flaherty said he did not know enough about the controversy to comment.

“But in terms of what is ­required to be on the bench and to be a good judge, the qualities I think are important for that position in terms of temperament and judgment, I think that she is overflowing with those qualities,” he said.

As public safety secretary, Heffernan was responsible for policy and budget oversight of agencies, programs, and boards that work in crime prevention and homeland security. She previously worked in the executive office as undersecretary of criminal justice, supervising the Department of Correction, Sex Offender Registry, and ­Parole Board, and working as a liasion to county sheriffs.

She previously was an assistant district attorney for ­Middlesex County; executive ­director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association; associate general counsel and director of intergovernmental and regulatory affairs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; and corporate director of government relations for ­CareGroup Health Care Systems.

The Governor’s Council, an elected, eight-member panel that reviews judicial appointments, has been increasingly active in recent years in pushing back against the governor’s nominations. Last year, it was deadlocked on the nomination of Michael J. McCarthy, a lawyer, to become a district judge.

But yesterday, Patrick nominated him again. McCarthy, a private practitioner since 1989, had previously served as city ­solicitor in Pittsfield and as a prosecutor in Berkshire County and Portland, Maine. A resident of Pittsfield, he is a graduate of Assumption College and University of Maine Law School, the governor’s office said.

The governor also tapped an up-and-coming Democrat Friday to become his communications director. Jesse Mermell, a Brookline selectwoman and party activist, previously served as a vice president of external affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and as executive director of the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus.

Mermell issued a statement calling it an honor to be part of Patrick’s team and noting that she will resign from her selectwoman’s job this month.

Glen Johnson of the Globe staff ontributed to this report.
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter
@StephanieEbbert
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