Great courts don’t just happen. A top-notch bench requires the same kind of thoughtful recruiting it takes to put together a great baseball or football team.
And while Washington continues to wrestle with its own intractable issues and divisions as it considers the newest nominee for the US Supreme Court, Massachusetts provides a marked contrast. This has long been a place where judicial nominations are neither partisan battles nor rancorous affairs.
But they are a governor’s most lasting legacy. And by filling the two existing vacancies on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, Governor Charlie Baker will make the seven-member court entirely his — not just now, but for a decade to come.
That’s why Baker must seize this opportunity to make the state’s highest court truly reflect the diverse state it serves. It’s not just the right thing to do for the times in which we live, but because judicial decision-making is strengthened by the diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds and by the diversity of experiences around that conference table when cases are decided.
But to achieve that kind of mix means not simply waiting for applications to come in over the transom. It requires recruiting qualified candidates — from within and from without the court system.
“The administration . . . will continue efforts to support a culture of diversity throughout both the Commonwealth and its courts,” assured the governor’s press secretary, Sarah Finlaw, adding that the governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission has “met with members of each affinity bar association, attended diversity networking events, and has also met with diverse community members encouraging applications.” The deadline for applicants is Friday.
Of Baker’s 164 court picks so far, 74 have been women or about 45 percent. Finlaw did not supply information on minority judges named, but a 2019 report from the chief of the state’s trial court system puts the number for that system at 11 percent.
It’s a smart-money bet that the governor will fill the seat of Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who died last month, from among the current justices. The SJC, in addition to being the state’s highest court, also serves an administrative function at the top of the judicial pyramid, and the middle of the coronavirus pandemic is no time for on-the-job training. Gants was called on to make countless tough calls about how the courts would function while physically closed. Jury trials have still not resumed. He will be an incredibly tough act to follow in one of the system’s more thankless jobs. But it is a job where experience counts.
An inside pick would still give the governor two slots to fill — two opportunities for fresh faces and maybe even some outside-the-box thinking. Think Margaret Marshall, who was general counsel at Harvard when Governor William Weld picked her for the SJC, in 1996.
Earlier this month, some 20 lawmakers from Western Massachusetts made their pitch for the governor to make one of those new appointees from the 413 area code. There had until recently been a traditional Western Mass. seat on the court — not that that’s a bad idea — but not all traditions are worth keeping for their own sake. Let’s not forget this is also a court that didn’t get its first female justice until the appointment of Ruth Abrams in 1978 and its first Black justice, Roderick Ireland, until 1997. Ireland would go on to be the court’s first Black chief justice as well.
“To begin with, I am an African-American and I am proud of it,” Ireland said at his first swearing-in. “Hopefully someday it will not matter what the race of the person is. But now, it has some significance.”
Indeed it did — just as it would today if the court finally got its first Latino justice or a second Black justice. And to put some responsibility back on those Western Mass. lawmakers, did they go out and recruit qualified candidates or did they just complain?
Every team, every business, every police department knows that if it wants a diverse — and talented — staff, it means putting in the effort to find the best and brightest. We’ll know soon how seriously Baker takes that mission — and his legacy.
Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@Globe.com.