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SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd reflects on pandemic, racial injustice in first State of the Judiciary speech

Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd, the first Black woman to lead the high court, said that as the pandemic wanes, courts “need to do more to fight another kind of virus that has affected our legal system for far too long — the problem of racial and ethnic inequities,” according to a transcript.Stuart Cahill

The chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court spoke of the need to address racial injustice and the challenges and lessons of the coronavirus pandemic in her first annual State of the Judiciary speech at a Massachusetts Bar Association symposium Wednesday.

Chief Justice Kimberly S. Budd, the first Black woman to lead the high court, said that as the pandemic wanes, courts “need to do more to fight another kind of virus that has affected our legal system for far too long — the problem of racial and ethnic inequities,” according to a transcript.

“Even as we were battling COVID over the last year-and-a-half, the repeated, tragic and unjustified deaths of Black men and women in police encounters across the country sparked a national reexamination of the role of race in our legal system,” Budd said.

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She pointed to a study released last fall by Harvard Law School that showed Black and Latino Massachusetts residents are overrepresented in criminal courts relative to their population sizes and that both groups are given longer sentences on average than white defendants in similar circumstances.

Budd also referred to an SJC report from last February that showed lawyers of color and other underrepresented groups experience different treatment in the courts.

She said state courts have made racial justice a top priority, and the chief justices of each court meet four times a year with the commissioner of probation to discuss strategies for addressing inequities.

Budd also reflected on changes the pandemic brought to the courts, as many proceedings moved online and court officers conducted more business digitally.

“I doubt that anyone believes that we should go back to exactly the way things were before the pandemic, and we expect to continue many of the advances it brought about,” she said. “We have learned, for example, that not all court events need to take place at the courthouse. We can save litigants and their lawyers considerable time and expense by holding some hearings virtually when appropriate.”

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Budd also spoke of the sudden death of her predecessor, then-Chief Justice Ralph Gants, in September 2020. Gants, the court’s first Jewish chief justice, was known as a tireless advocate for racial justice.

His death was a great loss to colleagues on the court because he was not just an esteemed jurist but a friend and mentor, she said.

“He was always in touch, by phone, or email, or showing up in person — offering encouragement, seeking our advice or sharing his own, almost always leavened with his self-deprecating humor,” Budd said. “His wisdom, energy, and can-do spirit buoyed us all during a dark time.”

Paula M. Carey, chief justice of the Trial Court; John A. Bello, the Trial Court administrator; and Massachusetts Bar Association President Thomas M. Bond also spoke at the symposium.

Carey, who plans to retire in January, said the pandemic and the racial reckoning begun last year have led to stress and uncertainty for many.

“However, I believe that we have emerged stronger, more innovative and confident in our resilience as a result of this experience,” she said.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.