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LETTERS

Take note, governor: Mass. appellate courts short of jurists with criminal defense experience

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants gave the annual address on the state of the judiciary to the legal community in October 2019 at the John Adams Courthouse. Gants died last month following a heart attack.
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants gave the annual address on the state of the judiciary to the legal community in October 2019 at the John Adams Courthouse. Gants died last month following a heart attack.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Rachelle G. Cohen is correct to encourage Governor Baker to strengthen the Supreme Judicial Court by nominating justices with more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds (“Baker must make the SJC reflect the diverse state it serves,” Opinion, Oct. 16.) But she glosses over one point and omits another, and both deserve attention.

First, Cohen mentions that judicial appointments in Massachusetts historically have not been “rancorous affairs.” That’s faint praise. In fact, we can be proud that our governors have long nominated sterling candidates to fill judicial seats, particularly on the appellate courts — the SJC and the Massachusetts Appeals Court. These justices are smart and thoughtful, and they work hard, under the burden of a heavy caseload, to reach fair decisions.

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Second, while Cohen stresses the need to recruit justices with diverse experiences, she should have mentioned one area in which our appellate courts are woefully short on experience: justices with deep criminal defense backgrounds. Perhaps half of the cases that reach the appellate level are criminal cases. Although there are many appellate justices with prosecutorial backgrounds, there are precious few justices, if any, who have devoted careers to defending those charged with criminal offenses, a large number of whom are poor and indigent.

Lawyers who represent criminal defendants, if appointed to our appellate courts, would naturally bring a different and important perspective to the consideration of cases, greatly enriching the already strong appellate court system. Governor Baker should seriously consider this point as he prepares for his next judicial nominations.

Charles H. Yelen

Newtonville

The writer is a lawyer.