With the nomination of Kimberly Budd as the next chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, she stands to make history as the first woman of color to lead the 328-year-old Massachusetts court.
But that’s not why Governor Charlie Baker is making the right choice in nominating her. Budd is the best candidate for the job. She happens to be Black, and she happens to be a woman. Not so long ago, those attributes would have been barriers.
“Governor Baker has made a brilliant selection," said retired chief justice Margaret Marshall, the first woman to hold that position on the SJC. "Every appointment of a chief justice is consequential. The appointment at this time is even more so because of the importance that state courts play in our democracy in the coming decades.”
If approved, Budd would be the second woman in that role.
“Justice Budd is a brilliant scholar, wise, humble, a very keen listener and a delight to whom to work," Marshall added. "Her breadth of experience before she came to the bench is wide, both on the criminal and civil side of the law. I cannot think of anybody who comes better qualified . . . she is the perfect appointment.”
The post on the seven-member court opened after the sudden death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants in September. It was almost certain the governor would select a successor from within the SJC. The search, I am told, came down to two justices: Budd and David Lowy.
Baker elevated Budd, 54, and Lowy, 60, to the high court in 2016, and they were sworn in on the same day. By many accounts, both possess the judicial temperament to lead the court.
But this moment represents a clarion call for Budd. To some, it may seem obvious to elevate the lone justice of color on the SJC. But in doing so, Baker, to his credit, also resisted the political ties that bind: Lowy worked with Baker in the administration of Governor Bill Weld in the early 1990s, and he is married to Virginia Buckingham, who was Weld’s chief of staff.
In announcing her nomination on Wednesday, Baker highlighted how Budd both professionally and personally is prepared for this role.
“Justice Budd has served as a role model for women and for people of color and has given a voice to those who are not always heard," the governor said. “Great listeners — and Kim Budd is a great listener — give people a sense that their views, their ideas, that they matter. More than anything at this particular time, this court needs to be led by someone who listens.”
Budd’s nomination comes as the country goes through a wrenching racial reckoning since the killing of George Floyd in May, yet another Black man who died senselessly and needlessly in police custody. Budd’s lived experience makes her uniquely qualified to lead reform of a criminal justice system that is rife with inequities, and that for too long has disproportionately punished Black and Latino people.
To fully appreciate why Budd is unequivocally the right choice, look at where she comes from: Her grandfather, Joseph Anthony Budd, was Springfield’s first Black police officer. Her father, Wayne Budd, is the former US attorney for Massachusetts, appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
“From her grandfather, Kim was raised in a house where you understand the dangers of policing, where you fear your loved one may not come home, and saw the impact of policing done right as a way of uplifting a community,” said Pratt Wiley, a childhood friend who now runs The Partnership, a business organization that advances people of color.
But Budd can also relate to the fear of law enforcement as the mother of two Black teenage sons. “It makes me nervous about when they go out,” she told NBC10 Boston last year. “Are they going to be treated well? Is anything going to happen to them?”
Wiley, who is Black and an attorney by training, said having those two perspectives is exactly the kind of jurist who should be leading the SJC.
“That is the job, balancing those interests, balancing at an emotional and intellectual level,” Wiley said. “For many of us, we hope this moment of racial reckoning reveals that, through understanding, we learn that our perceived conflicts can be aligned toward something better. If there is someone who can do that for the judiciary better than Kim, I don’t know who that person can be.”
Budd’s nomination needs to be approved by the Governor’s Council, which rarely rejects Baker’s judicial picks.
As a Black woman, Budd is used to having people question her abilities. “I have been underestimated in the court room,” she told NBC10 Boston. “I have been mistaken for the defendant’s girlfriend when I was first practicing.”
In 2020, there should be no doubts about her qualifications. She worked at the Boston law firm Mintz Levin, the US attorney’s office in the major crimes and drug units, and Harvard’s general counsel office before Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the Superior Court in 2009. She has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and was a classmate of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School.
Budd is the third Black person to serve on the high court, after Roderick Ireland and Geraldine Hines. Both are retired, but when Ireland was appointed to the SJC in 1997, he was its first Black justice and later its first Black chief justice. Hines, appointed to the SJC in 2014, was the first Black woman on the court.
In 2016, when Budd was sworn in, Ireland and Hines attended the ceremony at Faneuil Hall: two Black jurists who had ascended to the pinnacle of power in the Massachusetts legal system welcoming a third to this rarefied world — on the site where slave auctions were once held.
And on Wednesday, this time under the golden dome of the State House, Budd accepted the nomination to be chief justice — and the mantle of history that comes with it.
“If confirmed," she said, “I promise that I will give my very best effort as the chief of the oldest continuously running appellate court in the Western Hemisphere.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.