Governor Charlie Baker’s nomination of Kimberly Budd as chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court is indeed a “first.” If confirmed by the Governor’s Council, she would be the first Black woman to head the nation’s oldest continually operating appellate court — and “firsts” are always exciting.
Budd, who has already served four years as an associate justice on the court, will, as Baker noted, be a “role model for women and people of color.” Girls growing up in Massachusetts will be able to see a Black woman in a black robe — and there is undeniable value in that.
Every judge brings to the job the sum total of his or her life’s experiences, so there is also value in having as chief justice a woman who can still remember her days as a young lawyer, and what it was like to be mistaken by a court officer for the defendant’s girlfriend simply because of the color of her skin.
But Budd’s qualifications go well beyond her “firstness.”
She has spent more than 11 years on the bench, first as a superior court judge before being named by Baker to the SJC. A Harvard Law grad, she has been a litigator and an assistant US attorney, and served as director of the Community Values program at Harvard Business School.
To do the job she is being asked to do, she will have to be that rarest of combinations — a legal scholar, a tough and focused administrator, and, as Baker so rightly indicated, an advocate “for the judiciary among the other branches of government.”
It is said that shortly after the untimely death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants, his colleagues on the court met (remotely) to list and then divide among themselves some of the many jobs the chief had taken on. There were the standing committees and the budgeting, of course. But there was more than that. It was Gants, for example, who ordered up a crucial Harvard Law School study on racial disparities in the courts — a report released just days before his death.
So, to be done right, the job will require Budd’s substantial energy.
As Budd herself noted at Wednesday’s news conference, “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. People in the Commonwealth are in a panic. 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 now.”
Budd is certainly qualified to deal with the difficult days ahead — days of trying to restore the full functioning of the courts, including jury trials, while keeping those who enter every courthouse in the Commonwealth safe.
But she also has qualities that set her apart. “More than anything at this particular time, this court needs to be led by someone who listens,” Baker said in introducing his nominee. It was that quality and her “calm, steady hand” that judicial colleagues most often mentioned when asked about her.
The nomination of Budd, of course, now leaves the governor with two more vacancies on the SJC to fill. What Budd’s nomination does not do is absolve the governor from continuing to diversify the court’s membership. Surely there is room for another woman, another person of color, and for someone who has come up through the ranks of defense attorneys on this former-prosecutor-dominated court.
“I would hate to think that anyone would use my presence on the court to support an idea I am one of just a handful of people of color who are qualified to be a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court,” Budd said in an interview published last May in the Boston Bar Journal. “That certainly is not the case.”
She’s right on that score as well. Baker’s role in moving the state’s highest court into a new era is welcome, and should not end with Budd’s nomination.
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