fb-pixel

Charlie Baker must pick a person of color for the SJC

With Justice Barbara Lenk's impending retirement, he has an chance to further diversify the high court

From left to right, top to bottom: Stephanie Lovell, Diana Maldonado, Kenneth V. Desmond Jr., Sabita Singh, Sookyoung Shin and Dalia Wendlandt.
From left to right, top to bottom: Stephanie Lovell, Diana Maldonado, Kenneth V. Desmond Jr., Sabita Singh, Sookyoung Shin and Dalia Wendlandt.

It shouldn’t take a historic moment of racial reckoning to compel Governor Charlie Baker to diversify the Supreme Judicial Court.

But here we are.

The seven-member court is down to one justice of color — Kim Budd, a Black woman whom Baker appointed in 2016. With Justice Barbara Lenk set to retire next month, the governor has another chance to reshape the court.

You know the drill in this town. When a big job opens up, white male candidates come out in droves. Feel the stampede yet? Of Baker’s five previous picks to the high court, three have been white men.

Advertisement



The pressure is indeed on for the governor to this time find a person of color. Baker also can make history by seating the first Latinx person on the 328-year-old Massachusetts high court.

Will he meet the moment — or find an excuse to choose yet another white nominee?

To be fair, the legal field remains predominantly white ― particularly the upper echelon but it would be a mistake to think Baker is on some kind of “mission impossible.”

There are qualified candidates of color, many of them sitting judges in lower courts. The bigger question is whether any of them want the job and, if so, whether the insular political process has boxed them out.

Baker has appointed a 13-member commission to come up with a slate of candidates. With judges facing a mandatory retirement age of 70, candidates typically are under 60 years old. They often are sitting judges or lawyers with extensive trial experience. They should be good writers and thinkers. They need to get along with the other justices because the SJC hears appeals on criminal and civil cases, and must collectively reach a decision that becomes the standard of law in the state.

Advertisement



After my colleague Matt Stout’s recent piece on Baker’s SJC pick, I decided to check in with some high-powered lawyers about who should be on the governor’s short list. The SJC already is diverse in some ways, with two gay justices (Lenk and Elspeth Cypher) and the first Jewish chief justice (Ralph Gants).

What follows is an intentionally long list — so no one can say we can’t find any candidates of color.

The obvious place to look is the state Appeals Court. Here are some jurists to watch:

Diana Maldonado, a Latina, was appointed in 1999 by Governor Paul Cellucci to serve on the Chelsea District Court and elevated by Governor Deval Patrick to the Appeals Court in 2013.

Kenneth Desmond Jr., who is Black, was appointed in 2005 by Governor Mitt Romney to Boston Municipal Court and promoted in 2012 by Patrick to Superior Court and in 2016 by Baker to the Appeals Court.

Sabita Singh, a South Asian woman, was appointed in 2006 by Romney to the District Court and elevated in 2017 by Baker to the Appeals Court.

Dalila Wendlandt, a Latina, and Sookyoung Shin, an Asian-American woman — both Baker appointees ― have business law backgrounds, but both are relatively new to the bench. It might not be their turn yet, but they are part of a critical pipeline of future SJC nominees of color.

Baker could also look to the Superior Court, where the names of two Black judges keep popping up:

Advertisement



Angel Kelley and William White Jr. Kelley, appointed by Patrick in 2013, is a former federal prosecutor and Brockton District Court judge. White, appointed by Baker in 2019, worked in the private and public sectors, including stints in the offices of the state attorney general and Suffolk County district attorney.

It’s a bit unusual to pluck a high court justice directly from juvenile, probate and family, and municipal courts. But here again we see an emerging bench of diverse talent:

Angela Ordoñez is the first Latinx person appointed to serve as chief justice of the family and probate court.

Gloria Tan taught at Harvard Law School before getting a juvenile court seat.

It’s also possible for an SJC justice to come from the private sector or academia.

The most high-profile example is Margaret Marshall, who was general counsel at Harvard when Governor Bill Weld tapped her in 1996 to serve on the SJC. She later would become the court’s first female chief justice, writing groundbreaking opinions such as the one that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.

From academia, two Black women with impressive credentials come to mind:

Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Boston University Law School’s dean, and Susan Maze-Rothstein, a former judge turned law professor who is codirector of the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University.

From the private sector:

Roberto Braceras, who is Latinx, is a partner at Goodwin Procter and a former federal prosecutor who could bring business experience to the bench. He also serves as vice chair of the Judicial Nominating Commission and sits on the SJC nominating committee. (Braceras was also the lawyer for A.J. Baker, the governor’s son, who was accused of groping a woman but never charged.)

Advertisement



Stephanie Lovell, who is Black and is chief legal officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. She previously worked in the public sector, most notably in the state attorney general’s office as first assistant AG.

Diversity — whether on the court, in the boardroom, in the workplace, in politics, or in the media — matters. On one level, Baker gets it because he has put people of color on the bench, rivaling Patrick’s track record. But the state still has a long way to go. For example, of the 365 justices in the state trial court system, only about 11 percent are people of color, according to a 2019 report. The population of the Commonwealth is close to 30 percent minority.

Part of the challenge for Baker and his predecessors is the dearth of diversity in the legal profession, particularly in the Boston area. In 2019, about 5 percent of partners were people of color, while about 20 percent of associates were minorities, according to a survey of 35 Boston firms by the National Association for Law Placement.

If we want a more diverse court, lawyers of color need to be mentored and actively encouraged to pursue a judicial appointment. But more people of color also need to be involved in the judicial nominating process — from the commission to the Governor’s Council, which approves judicial appointments.

Advertisement



“If you have five white men, they all see life through the same lens,” said Linda Champion, a Boston litigator who identifies as a Black Korean-American. “The governor is uniquely positioned to add depth to the SJC, which right now does not exist.”

Champion, who spends a lot of time in courtrooms, feels strongly that the next SJC nominee must be a person of color who has the lived experience to grasp the inequities that persist in the justice system and understands “what happens to a community when judges get it wrong.”

As I understand it, the SJC nominating process is well underway. But if the process does not include a serious look at candidates of color, it’s time for a do-over.

This is no time to rush a judgeship. The moment calls for Baker and the Commonwealth to to be on the right side of history.

---

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this column misspelled the name of the Boston University Law School’s dean. The correct spelling is Angela Onwuachi-Willig.


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.