WIth the exception of mayor or town manager, the job of district attorney has the greatest impact on the day-to-day lives of Massachusetts residents. That presents a challenge for voters in 54 cities and towns in Middlesex County who must choose between two flawed candidates — incumbent District Attorney Marian Ryan and Middlesex Clerk of Courts Michael Sullivan.
The obvious role of a district attorney is to protect the community from dangerous criminals. But there is a loftier aspect to the job, as described by the American Bar Association: “The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.” Narrowly, that means prosecutors must never suppress facts that might establish innocence. In the wider sense, it is a call to district attorneys to run their offices with a level of transparency that inspires public trust in the criminal justice system.
The essence of the job — protecting the public while remaining transparent — requires a special person. Appealing to voters in a county with cities and towns as disparate as urban Lowell and upscale Weston adds another layer of complexity to the race. Both Ryan, 59, and Sullivan, 54, have their strengths. But neither is the complete package.
The revolting countenance of Jared Remy hangs heavily over this race. Governor Patrick appointed Ryan to the vacant DA’s post just a few months before Remy was arraigned in August 2013, on a charge of assaulting his girlfriend, Jennifer Martel. An assistant district attorney in Ryan’s office failed to request bail, which allowed Remy to walk out of the courtroom. A day later, he murdered Martel.
DA Ryan had the sense to order an independent review of her office’s handling of the Remy case. Yet when it came time to release the findings, she withheld 19 pages consisting largely of summaries of interviews with prosecutors and victim advocates. Ryan argued that she was protecting her staff. But the bottom line is that the Remy report — all of it — was a matter of great public interest and the subject of a Freedom of Information Act request.
“Transparency is a relatively slippery slope,” Ryan told the audience at a lively debate with Sullivan in Framingham on Wednesday night. Perhaps. But it’s not nearly as slippery as a lack of transparency in a high profile, political job.
Unlike Ryan, Sullivan intuitively understands the links between open and accountable government, including the right to access public documents. The amiable Sullivan, a former Cambridge city councilor, won’t get tripped up by politics. And it is almost impossible to imagine him — or any of the elected district attorneys across the state — carving up an independent report.
Voters in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary still need to weigh the experience of the candidates when it comes to keeping criminals in check. Ryan has devoted more than three decades of her professional life to public safety, which she describes as the “core mission” of the office. She has brought hundreds of felony cases to trial and created or implemented successful programs to address elder abuse, distracted driving, sexual assaults on college campuses, and domestic violence.
By comparison, Sullivan lacks legal gravitas. He spent about four years working in the Middlesex DA’s office and three years in the attorney general’s office. It was routine stuff, for the most part. He’s not likely to command immediate respect at a grisly crime scene.
It’s easier, however, to imagine a victorious Sullivan being greeted by warm applause from staffers in the DA’s office. Ryan has a reputation as an overly demanding and ornery boss. Since her appointment 16 months ago, more than a quarter of her staff has quit or given notice. Some of them are experienced prosecutors who bristled at her insistence — in the wake of the Remy debacle — that supervisors sign off on all bail recommendations in domestic violence cases. Many assistant district attorneys interpreted the policy as a lack of respect for their professional judgment.
Office morale would likely improve under Sullivan. But he still carries the whiff of a politician who plays the angles. Shortly after his election to clerk of courts in 2006, Sullivan began consulting for a developer seeking to build offices in Cambridge, which is part of Middlesex County. If he didn’t outright trample the ethics rules covering his elected office, he certainly stepped on them. Should he win, could Sullivan be trusted fully to hire and promote the most qualified people?
Still, Sullivan represents greater transparency. Ryan represents law and order. Voters will get to decide this case based on their own priorities and values.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com