Mary Beth Heffernan, the state’s outgoing public safety director, made a mistake when she signed on to the hiring of Sheila Burgess as the state’s highway safety director. In the wake of embarrassing headlines, Heffernan acknowledged the obvious: Given a lengthy driving record that included six crashes and several speeding violations, Burgess should never have gotten the job. But standing on its own, the Burgess scandal does not automatically disqualify Heffernan for consideration as a district court judge.
The hiring of Burgess illustrates all that is wrong with patronage and the power of political connections when it comes to obtaining state employment. In the case of Burgess, an unqualified person was placed in a job she did not deserve.
However, the opposite is true with Heffernan. Supporters say she has the temperament, compassion, and experience to be an effective judge. Governor Deval Patrick chose her despite the controversy, saying she has “the right touch for the district court, which is a neighborhood court.” State Representative Daniel B. Winslow, a Norfolk Republican and former judge, is another Heffernan fan. Winslow, who worked with Heffernan on criminal justice issues, praised her work and good standing in the legal community.
As public safety secretary, Heffernan was responsible for policy and budget oversight of agencies, programs, and boards that work in crime prevention and homeland security. As undersecretary of criminal justice, she previously supervised the Department of Correction, the Sex Offender Registry, and Parole Board. She was also an assistant district attorney and executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association.
Now, Heffernan’s fate rests with the eight elected members of the Governor’s Council, who have responsibility for vetting judicial nominees. Their vetting process should be a fair evaluation of the candidate’s overall credentials. In Heffernan’s case, that means weighing one lapse in judgment against a long career in public service. She clearly deserves the judgeship.