The Massachusetts House leadership has quietly used a late-night budget amendment to remove the Chelsea District Court from the state’s district court department and place it under the auspices of Boston Municipal Court, long a target of patronage charges.
The move, in the late hours of April 25, came several months after the chief justice of the state’s district courts disciplined Chelsea’s clerk magistrate, Kevin G. Murphy, for failing to maintain custody of three handguns.
The proposal was the work of state Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat and the House Judiciary Committee chairman, who counts Murphy as a political ally and close family friend.
The jurisdiction shift - which critics say is the type of deal that for decades defined business on Beacon Hill - sets up yet another showdown between the judicial branch and legislative leaders over control of the state’s court system. Over the years, those power struggles have led to scandals, criminal investigations, indictments, and legendary political yarns.
If the Chelsea court is moved to the Boston Municipal Court jurisdiction, Lynda M. Connolly, the leader of the state district court system and the person who disciplined Murphy, would lose control of that courthouse.
To become law, the court amendment still needs to be approved by the Senate and by Governor Deval Patrick. It was bundled with scores of others into a package created by the House leadership, avoiding any close scrutiny. Few if any members outside the House leadership were aware of the proposal.
Its sudden appearance as an amendment to the $32 billion House budget also came as a surprise to Robert A. Mulligan, the state court’s chief justice for administration and management, as well as to Connolly, the administrator, people within the court system confirmed.
When he learned about the plan, Mulligan wrote a letter to the House leadership asking them to put the brakes on the proposal. His pleas were ignored.
In an interview last week, O’Flaherty was insistent that his proposal is not related to Connolly’s treatment of Murphy. But he acknowledged that Murphy is a close family friend and campaign donor. O’Flaherty argued that for the sake of efficiency, the Chelsea court - which also handles Revere cases - should move under Boston Municipal Court. That court already handles all seven of Boston’s district courts, so the move would place all Suffolk County district courts under the same umbrella.
“That is gossipy and childlike to say the whole reason is to be protective of Kevin Murphy,’’ O’Flaherty said. “There is a substantive reason to put the Chelsea court in with the rest of the Suffolk County courts.’’
In early January, Connolly reassigned Murphy, a Chelsea resident, to Salem District Court for 90 days of training on securing evidence used in criminal trials after it was found that guns in his custody as criminal evidence could not be found.
Murphy’s exile to Salem was continued indefinitely in March after an investigation by Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office found that several packets of heroin and cocaine used in two separate drug cases were also missing. Jake Wark, spokesman for Conley’s office, said the missing evidence did not compromise the cases, but that the investigation about the chain of custody is continuing.
O’Flaherty said he is not aware of the details of the Murphy investigation.
“Whatever Kevin Murphy did, he will be held accountable,’’ O’Flaherty said. “I don’t even know what’s going on.’’
He also defended his use of the bundling process to get his proposal approved by the House without debate or public notice. He said it was a plan he wanted to implement for some years. O’Flaherty, who is preparing to step down as Judiciary Committee chairman in January, said he felt he needed to make the move before the Legislature adjourns.
“This is simply the fact that I have always wanted to put Chelsea under the BMC, nothing more,’’ he said.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo would not comment last week, referring questions to Brian Dempsey, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Dempsey said House leaders deferred to O’Flaherty’s expertise as judiciary chairman.
“You have the chair of the judiciary raising the issue of efficiency,’’ Dempsey said. “It seemed to make sense.’’
It is yet another in a series of attempts in recent decades by the House and Senate leadership to exercise control over certain management issues, often without consultation. Some of those moves have resulted in political disasters, in particular House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran’s initiative in 2002 to strip judges of their powers to hire and fire probation officers.
That shift in hiring rules laid the groundwork for the federal investigation and subsequent indictments earlier this year of John J. O’Brien, a Finneran political ally who was forced out as probation commissioner, following a Globe Spotlight Team investigation into the agency’s patronage hiring practices. Federal prosecutors have said that O’Brien ran the 1,800-employee agency like a criminal enterprise.
The Boston Municipal Court, with its powerful political ties, has always remained a separate entity from the state’s district court system. The courts handle similar types of cases, but the chief justice of Boston Municipal Court reports to Mulligan, instead of to Connolly, who oversees all other district courts in Massachusetts. And because of its politically entrenched status and ties to Beacon Hill power brokers, Boston Municipal Court has been relatively free from rigorous oversight.
In his first year in office as governor in 2003, Mitt Romney pushed to place Boston Municipal Court under the management of the district court’s chief justice, arguing that his plan would save $7.5 million in administrative budget costs.
Romney and those who advocated for the reorganization charged that the Boston Municipal Court is politically protected at the State House, receiving budgets far greater than it needs, while catering to lawmakers’ patronage requests. At the time, the court handled 5,000 fewer cases than Springfield District Court, but employed 55 more workers and spent 2 1/2 times more money, according to a report by the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank.
The Legislature, in a move led by Finneran and his majority leader, Salvatore F. DiMasi, not only rejected Romney’s proposal, but also expanded the Boston Municipal Court’s jurisdiction to include Boston’s seven district courts, but not Chelsea’s and Revere’s. Romney’s veto was easily overridden by the Legislature.
Just two years ago, the House - at the behest of Michael F. Rush of West Roxbury, who was upset at Mulligan’s treatment of his father, a retired probation officer - tried with a stealth budget amendment to force the chief justice to move his downtown offices to cramped quarters above Charlestown District Court. The plan failed in the Senate.
Three decades earlier, in one of the Legislature’s most controversial clashes with the judiciary, Senate president William M. Bulger infamously slashed the Housing Court budget and demoted its chief justice, George Daher, after Daher ignored his patronage demands.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.