If confirmed by the Governor’s Council, Geraldine S. Hines will be the first black woman to serve on the state’s highest court. That makes her selection “a milestone,” as described in a Globe headline after Governor Deval Patrick nominated her to fill the Supreme Judicial Court vacancy created by the retirement of Chief Justice Roderick Ireland.
While it’s true that this nomination marks a significant moment in Massachusetts history, what makes Hines a worthy candidate goes beyond sheer symbolism. At 66, she is, first, a seasoned jurist and experienced lawyer. That’s what gives her stature and gravitas, along with a life story that dramatically reflects the country’s transition from segregated nation to land of more equal opportunity.
Hines grew up in the Mississippi Delta region as a child of the segregated south, and went on to graduate from Tougaloo College in Jackson and the University of Wisconsin Law School. She began her career working on prisoners’ rights litigation as a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and, in the mid-1970s, she practiced criminal law with the Roxbury Defenders’ Committee. She was a co-founder of Burnham, Hines & Dilday, the first New England law firm composed of women of color. Hines began her judicial career in 2001 as an associate justice of the Superior Court and has served as an associate justice on the Appeals Court since last year.
If Hines is confirmed for a spot on the SJC, she will serve about four years before reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70. That’s not a problem, by any means. But it bucks the trend in Washington, where presidents have been appointing ever-younger Supreme Court nominees, seeking to influence the judicial branch for many decades to come. Thankfully, Patrick isn’t that greedy; in Hines, he’s choosing a candidate whose mature judgment will benefit the court for a short term, before she moves on to other horizons. It’s an example that presidents should follow.