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Mass. high court asks judge to block subpoena from ex-probation chief

In an unusual legal move, the state Supreme Judical Court is asking a federal judge to reject a request by former state probation commissioner John J. O’Brien to scour the court’s internal records before O’Brien’s corruption trial begins next month.

O’Brien is accused of creating an illegal personnel system where jobs in his department went to candidates referred to him by Beacon Hill lawmakers, criminal charges that grew out of the Boston Globe’s 2010 Spotlight series on hiring practices by O’Brien.

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In exchange, prosecutors say, the lawmakers routinely boosted O’Brien’s budget, helping him build political power as head of an agency where jobs were for sale.

He and two former top deputies have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Defense lawyers contend that O’Brien did nothing illegal and was simply engaging in political patronage.

In papers filed in federal court on Friday, lawyers for the SJC, the highest court in the state, said O’Brien’s defense team recently served the SJC with a subpoena demanding records dating back to May 24, 2010, covering hiring in the probation department and for court officers.

The SJC contends the request is too broad, would take too much time to complete, and it would cost taxpayers around $30,000 to do an electronic record search and then have lawyers review the results to make sure O’Brien is entitled to the materials.

If approved, O’Brien’s subpoena would require an examination of the electronic records of all seven justices of the SJC, the court argued. The SJC also said that under state law, internal court records cannot be subpoenaed.

“The purpose underlying these rules is to protect the courts from being drawn unnecessarily into litigation involving others,” Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office wrote for the SJC. “While the United States District Court is not bound by the Massachusetts court rules, the policy behind these rules nevertheless is implicated in this context.’’

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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