On Aug. 10, Brent Tingle sat in a green-walled room in the State House, having one of the biggest moments of his life.
The attorney had been nominated as a Superior Court judge, and he was addressing the Governor’s Council — the obscure, eight-member body that ultimately decides whether a governor’s nominees sit on the bench. He’d talked about his humble beginnings, and his admiration for his mother, who had not lived to see this longed-for day. He was just explaining how fulfilling his work had been when Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney rushed into the room and interrupted him.
“I just threw [up], I got sick coming in,” said the councilor from Watertown, the moment preserved for posterity on YouTube. “This is so embarrassing. … I do want to say Madam Chair I met with this nominee and [he is] just outstanding.”
But what Devaney really wanted to talk about was her recent vote to confirm another judge, who appears to oppose abortion rights — a vote for which Devaney was now being criticized in her reelection campaign. Though the nominee had studiously avoided answering questions in her hearing on how she’d rule on abortion matters on the bench, Devaney insisted the judge had told her privately she would recuse herself.
“[Tingle] said he was pro-choice and my last one said she will recuse herself” from any abortion matters that come before her, Devaney said.
“He’s in the middle of his opening statement,” Councilor Eileen Duff protested.
“I know, but I have to leave,” Devaney said. Eventually, she apologized and departed.
“No problem,” Tingle said. “I’ve gone on too long.”
But Devaney’s critics say it is she who has gone on too long, that she’s a disruptive and embarrassing presence on the council. There was a time when Devaney was but one of many, er, characters on the panel — long a collection of oddballs and hacks — who get the last word on appointments to benches and parole boards, and on pardons and commutations. But 23 years in, the councilor for District 3 is the standout, often at the center of embarrassing incidents that have brought today’s more serious governor’s council into public view.
Over the years, her frustrated colleagues have not minced words.
“It’s time that we stood up to the terror that she has rained upon this council and the nominees,” said councilor Mary Hurley in 2017. Hurley is not seeking reelection this year and has endorsed Devaney’s primary opponent, Concord attorney Mara Dolan.
“The legacy of this council as a laughingstock is a legacy that, Councilor Devaney, in my opinion, you own,” former councilor Jennie Caissie chimed in.
This past April, Devaney and Councilor Terry Kennedy got into a heated dispute over who assaulted whom with a dime. According to the State House News Service account of the incident — a deadpan tour de force — Devaney said Kennedy threw the dime at her. Kennedy said he merely gave Devaney the dime as a joke — because she had called a reporter to “drop a dime” about the fact that the council had stopped livestreaming its proceedings — and that Devaney then threw the dime at him. “It wasn’t a curling iron this time,” Kennedy joked, referring to a 2007 assault and battery charge against Devaney for allegedly throwing a bag containing a hair tool at a store clerk.
Devaney says her colleagues criticize her because she holds them, and the Baker administration, to account, calling out the politics and horse-trading she says are obvious when it comes to some nominees and council votes.
“I am not going to be voted Miss Congeniality up here, but I want to be the people’s voice,” she said in an interview. “I want good government, I want transparency, I don’t want everybody’s friends to be nominated.”
Sometimes Devaney has been right to call out her colleagues for being too eager to rubber stamp a governor’s picks, or for failing to be transparent enough. That dime she dropped earlier this year helped put pressure on the council to resume livestreaming its hearings.
“The people have a right to see who the governor is appointing,” she said.
But is the drama worth it?
Dolan and her supporters clearly think not. The public defender, who has also worked for US Senator Ed Markey and former state Senate President Stan Rosenberg, says she is running because she is uniquely positioned to correct the fact that there are too many former prosecutors on benches in this state, and too few judges who understand the lives of those accused of crimes. She decries the state’s abysmal record on pardons and commutations, which are inexcusably rare. And even though councilors have little power beyond voting nominees up or down (and lobbying the administration, if they have good relationships), Dolan reckons just having a stronger and more credible voice for more diversity and compassion will make a difference.
“I know what my clients’ lives are like, I know what their dreams are,” Dolan said. “Even if someone would be a wonderful judge, they need someone to give them that perspective.”
Devaney, too, says she is deeply concerned about diversity and compassion on the bench, and is appalled at some of the governor’s appointments to the parole board. She is appalled, too, that Dolan, whom she considered a friend, is running against her, making this “the most difficult campaign I have ever had.”
If it’s her last, the governor’s council will be way more boring.
Voters will have to decide whether that’s a good thing.