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Baker nominates Kimberly Budd as chief justice

"People are hurting. And we have to make sure that the judiciary is running as well as it can, and that’s what I’m focused on right now,'' said Kimberly S. Budd, nominated to be chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court by Governor Charlie Baker.
"People are hurting. And we have to make sure that the judiciary is running as well as it can, and that’s what I’m focused on right now,'' said Kimberly S. Budd, nominated to be chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court by Governor Charlie Baker.Stuart Cahill/Pool photo

Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday nominated Kimberly S. Budd to be chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, putting her in line to become the first Black woman to lead the state’s highest court in its 328-year history.

Budd, an associate justice since 2016, would fill the role last held by the late Ralph D. Gants, whose death last month shook the state’s legal community and the SJC.

“The idea that I would be the first Black female chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court is a little overwhelming and it’s very meaningful to me,” Budd said at a State House news conference Wednesday. “But the idea of actually just being the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court is more overwhelming for me.”

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In nominating her, Baker said Budd has served as a role model for women and people of color and has “given a voice to those who are not always heard.”

Her selection is also expected to be the first in a series of coming nominations from Baker that, if approved by the Governor’s Council, would complete a court filled entirely with Baker appointees.

“More than ever, we need her leadership and the unique lens with which she views experience and makes decisions,” Baker said of Budd. “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.”

A former prosecutor, Budd, 54, was hailed by litigators and elected officials as a conscientious jurist whose nomination would not only be barrier-breaking on a predominantly white court, but befitting a time when the judiciary is weighing how best to address racial inequities and access to justice.

Attorney General Maura Healey called her nomination “historic and inspiring." Representative Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts’ first Black congresswoman, said she was confident Budd would “meet and exceed the history-making expectations.”

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“Justice Budd will do a fantastic job because she has all the tools necessary for the role,” former chief justice Roderick L. Ireland, the court’s first Black chief, said in a statement released by Baker’s office. “She is brilliant, hardworking, analytical, collegial, and astute.”

If confirmed by the Governor’s Council, Budd would be tasked with not only leading the seven-member court as its chief justice but serving as the top administrator of the state’s entire judiciary.

It’s a role that Gants used to also promote policy, from opposing the state’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes to championing racial justice. That included asking Harvard Law School to conduct a study of racial disparities in the state’s courts. (It released results just days before his death.)

Budd, noting she only found out about her nomination on Tuesday, said she hadn’t yet thought about “what I might do as chief justice.”

But she said the courts must function well during the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the judiciary, like many institutions, and pushed before judges a wave of new issues, from fears of widespread eviction hearings to a court challenge to Baker’s emergency authority.

“People in the Commonwealth are in a panic,” Budd said. “People are hurting. And we have to make sure that the judiciary is running as well as it can, and that’s what I’m focused on right now.”

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Budd called Gants a mentor and a friend and the honor to be nominated “unquestionably bittersweet.” She also indicated she’s still consuming both the logistical and symbolic weight the role would bring.

No woman of color has ever been chief justice in the history of the SJC — the oldest continuous sitting appellate court in the Western hemisphere — and she would be just the second Black chief justice after Ireland (2010-2014) and the second woman to hold the role, following Margaret H. Marshall (1999-2010).

Budd, who celebrated her 54th birthday Friday, would also be the state’s youngest chief justice in more than a century. She wouldn’t face mandatory retirement age until October 2036.

“Justice Budd’s exemplary record as an intellectual, a legal scholar, and her commitment to excellence cannot and should not be overlooked,” said Stesha A. Emmanuel Laborde, president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association and an attorney at McCarter & English. “This is also a historic moment for the Commonwealth and the generations of young Black boys and girls who can look to the highest court in our Commonwealth and see a reflection of themselves.”

Budd, the daughter of former US attorney Wayne A. Budd, was named to the Superior Court in 2009 by Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat. Baker named her as a high court associate justice in 2016. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and the 1991 class at Harvard Law School, which also included former president Obama. She is a former attorney for Harvard University and prosecutor in the US attorney’s office.

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Budd, who is married with two sons, said Wednesday she is not enrolled in a political party.

Baker’s nomination of her is expected to be the first of several high-profile choices in the coming weeks.

The governor is weighing two other SJC nominations — one to fill Budd’s associate justice seat and another to replace Justice Barbara A. Lenk, who is nearing her mandatory retirement in December — giving him the opportunity to name an entire high court of his own nominees.

No governor since Francis W. Sargent, whose final term ended nearly 50 years ago, has tapped six new justices while in office, the Globe has reported. And it’s unclear if any governor has named as many new SJC jurists as Baker will have since the early years of the state’s Constitution.

The opportunity has also brought pressure on Baker to expand not only the court’s racial diversity, but its legal makeup.

Beyond Lenk — a Patrick nominee, white woman, and the court’s first openly gay jurist — four of its five current justices are former prosecutors, and Budd is the only person of color. Several attorneys said Wednesday that Baker must also weigh adding a judge with deep experience in civil law.

In Budd, Baker tapped a justice who has written 85 decisions in her four-plus years on the top state bench, including two released the morning of her nomination.

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She wrote the court’s decision last year that jurors don’t have to put aside all their beliefs when they serve on juries, a case sparked by a woman who was excluded from a jury after she said she believed the system is rigged against young black men.

Budd also authored the SJC’s ruling that police can no longer frisk drivers during traffic stops based solely on safety concerns.

“On certain criminal justice issues, particularly involving the rights of criminal defendants, she has been very strong,” said Thomas J. Carey, Jr., an attorney at Hogan Lovells and chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s amicus committee.

“She is one of the quieter justices, but when she does ask a question, you perk up,” he said. “She listens very carefully, likes to hear what the lawyers have to say, and when she does have a question, it has always been to right where the heart of the case is.”

Budd’s writing has been notable, too, in dissenting opinions, including one she wrote to the SJC’s high-profile decision in 2018 to reject a ballot question that would have raised the state income tax on Massachusetts' highest earners.

Currently, the SJC is weighing a challenge to the sweeping emergency powers Baker has wielded amid the pandemic.

Budd said she views that impending decision and Baker’s decision to nominate her as separate — “That’s going on and this is going on,” she said. Baker said he and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito did not ask her about any case that’s before the SJC.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.