Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday nominated appellate court judge Dalila Argaez Wendlandt to the Supreme Judicial Court, putting her in line to be the first Latina to serve on the state’s highest court in its 328-year history.
Baker formally announced Wendlandt’s selection at an afternoon news conference at the State House. Her nomination would fill one of two openings Baker has been weighing on the SJC, where Baker has already appointed five justices. Should all his picks be approved by the Governor’s Council, he will soon have named the entire seven-member high court.
Baker said during the briefing that Wendlandt’s colleagues have described her as “brilliant, a home run, a great colleague who compromises and has a terrific sense of humor.”
Her decisions as an appellate justice, Baker said, demonstrate “an open-minded approach to the issues.”
Baker said “we have every confidence that Justice Wendlandt will bring a spectacular legal resume, a collegial way of working, and a profound respect for the law and a deep belief in the American justice system” if confirmed, serving with “dignity and grace.”
Wendlandt, who answered questions in both English and Spanish, said she’s “honored and humbled to be considered worthy” by the Baker administration to “sit alongside the legal giants that currently make up that bench.”
She also thanked her husband, three children, and her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Colombia in the 1960s.
“I am keenly aware that I have this opportunity, this nomination today, because of their decision to build a family in this new land, and adopt it as their new home,” Wendlandt said. If confirmed to the SJC, Wendlandt said, she will “dedicate myself” to making her parents and everyone else who has supported her proud.
Wendlandt’s selection comes less than a week after Baker nominated associate justice Kimberly S. Budd as the court’s chief justice. Budd, if confirmed, would be the first Black woman to serve as its chief justice.
Wendlandt, 51, was appointed by Baker to the state’s Appeals Court in July 2017. She holds mechanical engineering degrees from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and graduated from Stanford University Law School in 1996.
She worked for Ropes & Gray LLP, eventually rising to partner in the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation Group, and has written extensively on patent law. She also served as a special assistant district attorney in Middlesex County in two appellate matters.
“She is a superstar,” said attorney Joshua Levy, a partner at Ropes & Gray who worked with Wendlandt for decades. “She has a very sharp legal mind combined with a very compassionate and kind approach to things.”
Governor’s Councilor Eileen Duff, a member of the panel that will hold a confirmation hearing and vote on Baker’s judicial nomination, called Wendlandt “a brilliant choice” for the state.
“Not only does she have a wide range of legal experience, but her extensive engineering and technology background brings a depth of knowledge in an industry that will become particularly relevant to the court system in the years to come," Duff said in a statement released Tuesday. “It is essential to have diversity on the Supreme Judicial Court and I commend Governor Baker on nominating a second woman of color to the state’s most powerful bench.”
The timing of her nomination was unusual. It landed in the middle of a pivotal and potentially unprecedented Election Day, where tens of millions of people nationwide are voting in the throes of a pandemic to decide who the next president is, which party controls the US Senate, and thousands of other state and local offices.
The State House often sees little official movement on Election Day itself, which often can, and will, overshadow other major announcements.
But Baker, too, faces an uncommon clock. Justice Barbara A. Lenk is nearing her mandatory retirement in December, and the seven-member court currently features only six justices following the unexpected death of its chief justice, Ralph D. Gants, in September.
That has left Baker weighing his sixth and seventh nominations to the bench, both to replace Lenk and should Budd be approved, to fill her role as an associate justice. But each of his picks need time to be vetted and voted on by the eight-member Governor’s Council, which meets weekly on Wednesdays.
No governor since Francis W. Sargent, whose final term ended nearly 50 years ago, has tapped six new high-court 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.
Budd was hailed last week 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.
Baker has also faced pressure to expand not only the court’s racial diversity, but its legal makeup as well.
Beyond Lenk — an appointee of former governor Deval Patrick and the court’s first openly gay jurist — four of the court’s five other justices are former prosecutors, and Budd is the only person of color. Several attorneys said last week that Baker should also weigh adding a judge with deep experience in civil law.
Martin F. Murphy, president of the Boston Bar Association, in a statement praised the appointment of Wendlandt.
“As demonstrated by her experience as a highly-respected litigator who argued before the US Supreme Court, and more recently on the bench, Justice Wendlandt has a brilliant, creative, and methodical legal mind,” Murphy said. “Her background — which includes a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, pro bono work on asylum applications and a death-row appeal, and a commitment to improving work-life balance for attorneys at her prior firm — will bring a unique perspective to the Court and assist in their work on some of the most challenging issues in the Commonwealth.”
Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.