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Nonnie S. Burnes, who brought lower insurance rates to Massachusetts, dies at 79

Nonnie S. Burnes at her office in 2007.Wiggs, Jonathan Globe Staff

When Governor Deval Patrick appointed Superior Court Judge Nonnie S. Burnes to be the state’s insurance commissioner in 2007, reporters noted that her background was solely as a consumer — in purchasing insurance for her car and home, rather than in selling or regulating.

Patrick knew a few things the reporters didn’t.

“She was of course the perfect person to be our insurance commissioner,” he recalled.

He said he was “over the moon that she would come off the bench to take on that assignment.”

Judge Burnes, who spearheaded the move to introduce more insurance competition in Massachusetts, which lowered rates for most consumers, died Aug. 14 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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A longtime Beacon Hill resident, she was 79 and had been diagnosed with cancer, before dying of complications from an infection during treatment.

Her insurance commissioner tenure was brief. She left after two years to become a senior fellow at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.

But in a wide-ranging career, her time as the state’s top insurance official had the most significant impact on nearly everyone in the Commonwealth.

Judge Burnes “brought fresh insight and real courage to one of the central successes of this administration — the introduction of balanced, consumer-oriented competition to our auto insurance market,” Patrick said in 2009 when she stepped down.

Judge Burnes had also been a pioneering female partner at the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow, a Northeastern University trustee, and an early, key supporter in the political career of US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat.

“Nonnie was the kind of woman I love: She knew what she believed, but she always listened to a new idea and was ready to rethink,” Warren said in an e-mail.

“She also believed in helping — really helping,” Warren added. “She figured out what needed to be done, and she did it — from putting together a big party to introduce a political newcomer to the old Boston power establishment to heading out to knock on the doors of strangers to explain the importance of an upcoming election to ordering pizza for hungry campaign volunteers. She pulled off everything she did with grace and determination and enough charm to make everyone around her smile.”

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It was a Republican, Governor William Weld, who appointed Judge Burnes to the Superior Court, in 1996.

“The energy, acuity, and spirit of Judge Nonnie Burnes cast a bright light for many years in the Massachusetts Superior Court and through the Commonwealth’s judicial system,” he wrote in an e-mail.

At Hill & Barlow, which hired her out of law school in 1978, she rose to become a pioneering partner. She was a mentor to other women and to new associates such as Patrick, who joined the firm eight years later.

“She just was a force that you had to reckon with,” said her husband, Rick Burnes, a partner and a founder of the Charles River Ventures venture capital firm.

Judge Burnes was considered one of Hill & Barlow’s top litigators, and her work brought comfort and relief to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

As an attorney, she played a key role in the long-running court cases that improved conditions at Massachusetts institutions for the developmentally disabled. The lawsuits prompted a federal judge to order the Commonwealth to fund community-based placements for thousands of those who had lived in state schools that parents had criticized as little more than warehouses plagued by wretched conditions.

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“She was very smart, very strategic, and a great lawyer, so she came into the practice and was hugely successful,” said Margot Botsford, a retired state Supreme Judicial Court associate justice who was a colleague of Judge Burnes at Hill & Barlow and on the Superior Court bench.

Judge Burnes was equally successful as a Superior Court justice, Botsford said, and was instrumental in helping launch a professionalism course for the state’s lawyers.

A month before Judge Burnes died, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts announced she would receive the Lelia J. Robinson Award, named for the first woman admitted to practice in the state.

“She was a doer,” Botsford said, “and a doer with a vision.”

The younger of two children, Nonnie Steer was born in Cincinnati in 1942, the daughter of Betty Strauss Steer and Paul W. Steer.

Her father was a lawyer and her mother, fluent in French, was involved in community activities, including a group that read books in French.

At Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Judge Burnes met Rick Burnes at college mixer.

They married after he graduated from Harvard College in 1963 and she commuted from Cambridge to Wellesley to finish her studies.

The couple had three children, Gordon and Ethan, who both now live in Boston, and Sarah of Brooklyn, N.Y.

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While raising the children, Judge Burnes went to Northeastern University School of Law, commuting from the family’s Beacon Hill home.

“One of my earliest memories is her getting on her bike to ride over to Northeastern,” Ethan said.

“An orange bike — with a backpack,” Rick recalled.

Judge Burnes was in her mid-30s when she finished law school and began her 18-year tenure at Hill & Barlow, followed by 11 years as a Superior Court justice.

“The life of a mother without a profession was something she didn’t want,” Rick said, and that influenced their decision to remain in Boston, rather than moving to the suburbs. “We knew that if she was going to have a profession, it would have to be in the city.”

As a mother, “she always busy, but always had time to love us and to make sure we had what we needed,” Ethan said. “And she really gave us the tools to go out in the world and be the people we wanted to be.”

A longtime reproductive rights advocate, Judge Burnes formerly chaired the board of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and had served as interim president.

At Northeastern, where she was a trustee from 2000 to 2010, she had an impact that was “profound and everlasting,” Joseph E. Aoun, the university’s president, said in the school’s tribute.

“Her selfless commitment to equality, justice, and the good of society has permeated through everything she touched within and beyond our university,” he added. “And her legacy will ripple outward, far beyond the confines of the city and state that she did so much to serve.”

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She and her husband had a major role in launching Northeastern’s Public Interest Law Scholars Program, which provides financial support for law students pursuing social justice careers.

“The thing about Nonnie,” Rick said, “is that she saw reality so clearly and with such integrity.”

A memorial gathering will be announced for Judge Burnes, who in addition to her husband and three children leaves nine grandchildren.

Patrick wrote in an e-mail that he was “really devastated” to hear that his friend, former colleague, and insurance commissioner appointee had died.

“There was a depth of character and steely integrity about Nonnie that lived easily and comfortably alongside her genuine kindness and curiosity about others,” he said.

“She was hard-headed without ever being hard-hearted. The combination made her unassailable and made the rest of us want to be better. It also made her seem invincible, which is why it feels impossible that she is gone.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.