All of the political mudslinging leading up to Thursday’s primary win by Maura Hennigan, the clerk of the criminal division of Suffolk Superior Court, clarified only one thing: Her position — and related administrative jobs in counties across the state — should be appointed.
To protect the judicial process against the vagaries of public opinion, Massachusetts rejects the election of judges. Judicial independence is seen as key in making decisions that affect a defendant’s life and liberty. Yet judges and administrators of the Trial Court aren’t deemed fit to appoint the superior court clerks who preserve their files and oversee court fees.
An outmoded amendment to the state constitution mandates the election of superior court clerks, as well as registers of probate. But these posts are managerial in nature. Judges and court administrators are in the best positions to assess candidates for these jobs.
Voters, meanwhile, often have little to go on when voting on candidates for these positions — which, in practice, often become flypaper for political hangers-on.
In Suffolk County, Hennigan, a former Boston city councilor, was fined after the revelation that her staffers were working on her reelection campaign during the workday. She countered that her opponent, Robert Dello Russo Sr., had accepted campaign donations from convicted criminals. It was a sordid race. But even in quieter counties, the public should be asking why judges in any of the 14 superior courts should be denied the ability to hire, evaluate, and fire their clerks.
Eliminating the elected clerk’s position would require a change to the state’s constitution. And that would require two majority votes in consecutive constitutional conventions of the Legislature followed by a public ballot question, according to the secretary of state’s office. It’s a high bar. But eliminating these political sinecures should be attainable if the public is serious about well-administered courts.