Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, the first African-American on the Supreme Judicial Court, announced Monday that he is retiring, giving Governor Deval Patrick an opportunity to name a new head of the state’s highest court before he leaves office.
Ireland is set to turn 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges, in December, but he said in a letter to Patrick that he would retire effective July 25. The court’s new term starts in September.
“I have been blessed to be a member of the judiciary for almost 37 years,” said Ireland, a native of Springfield who was appointed chief justice by Patrick. “Serving the people of Massachusetts in this great office of public trust has been a truly humbling, challenging, stimulating, albeit sometimes difficult, but always rewarding experience, and I have enjoyed each and every day of my work.”
The timing of Ireland’s retirement gives Patrick a historic opportunity to make a long-lasting impact on the makeup of state’s highest court, said Martin Healy, chief operating officer and chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association. By replacing Ireland, the governor will have appointed a second chief justice before he leaves office next January.
If Patrick promotes one of the current associate justices, he will need to fill that opening. By doing that, he would have appointed a majority of the seven justices on the court.
“No other Massachusetts governor has had the opportunity to leave such an indelible imprint on the judicial branch’s highest court,” Healy said.
Patrick, addressing reporters at the State House Monday, lauded Ireland.
“The chief justice has shown wise and thoughtful leadership of the judicial system,” the governor said.
He added, in a statement, “The chief justice brought to his post a genuine concern for every litigant and every member of the court family. His sharp intellect, sound judgment, and proven fairness set just the right tone. I thank him for his exceptional service and wish him well in his well-earned retirement.”
Ireland was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court by Governor William F. Weld in 1997, the first black justice in the court’s then 305-year history. Ireland had previously served as a Juvenile Court judge and as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
Under Ireland, the court has set a standard for a number of recent ground-breaking legal issues, including the ruling in December that found it unconstitutional to sentence teenagers convicted of murder to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The ruling has effectively forced the state to rework the way it treats juveniles in the criminal justice system.
Last month, the court also ruled that it was unconstitutional for law enforcement to gather cellphone records that track individuals’ movements without first obtaining a search warrant from a state judge.
The issue of cellphone privacy is also playing out at the federal level, with recent disclosures about the National Security Agency spying program, and it is probably bound for the Supreme Court.
As a justice, Ireland voted with the majority in the Massachusetts court’s landmark 2003 decision to legalize same-sex marriage, and he was the lone dissenter when the court upheld Governor Mitt Romney’s use of a 1913 law to ban same-sex couples from other states from marrying in Massachusetts. Patrick and the Legislature repealed the 1913 law six years ago.
As chief justice, Ireland effectively oversaw the state’s judicial branch, from the high court to the district court level. He was also the face of the court, not only deciding cases but advocating for the judiciary.
In the face of budget cuts, he helped streamline the court system, was involved in the appointment of a new Trial Court administrator, and worked with legislators to develop a new organizational structure. He fought for bigger budgets, and he was never shy about challenging Patrick in public in defense of the court system.
Just months after Ireland was appointed chief justice, for instance, he and Patrick were at odds over how to reform the then-scandal-ridden Probation Department. Patrick wanted to place the probation agency in the executive branch, and Ireland wanted judges to remain in control. It remains under the judiciary’s oversight.
Ireland also decried a crime bill the Legislature passed two years ago because it left judges with little discretion in sentencing habitual offenders.
“I think he has exhibited great integrity, but also, he has earned the respect of all in government, that the judiciary is a co-equal branch of government mandated by the Massachusetts Constitution,” said Paul Dacier, president of the Boston Bar Association.
The governor’s office said in a statement that Patrick will follow the same selection process he used in appointing Ireland in 2010 to name his replacement and will name a new chief by the time Ireland retires.
Patrick could look to appoint someone from outside the bench, or could promote an associate justice. One of the justices, Fernande R.V. Duffly, a former appeals court justice who Patrick named to the high court in 2011, was on the short list at the time that Ireland was named chief.
As of Jan. 16, Patrick had appointed 146 of the 411 statutorily approved judge positions in the state, according to data from the governor’s office. He also appointed 24 of the 87 approved clerk-magistrate seats.
On Monday, Ireland thanked Patrick “for the wonderful opportunity you gave me, which has been the capstone of my career.”
Ireland, a graduate of Columbia University who also holds a master’s degree from Harvard Law School, has been praised by legal analysts for staunchly guarding a defendant’s rights.
In 2010, for instance, he authored an opinion concluding that a Revere police officer had no legal authority to enter a motel room and seize a handgun and marijuana, even though a woman in the room had let the officer in. Ireland wrote that it was unreasonable to believe that the unidentified woman had the authority to let the officer enter.
In a 2010 interview, Ireland, the son of a former teacher and painting contractor, has told the Globe that his philosophy is simple: “Call them as you see them, be fair, and let the law dictate where you go.”
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who appeared before Ireland many times as a prosecutor, also had high praise for the retiring justice.
“As a trial judge and as chief justice, his rulings were thoughtful, measured, and balanced,” Conley said. “He’s a gentleman on and off the bench with the ideal judicial temperament. He brought decades of courtroom experience to the SJC, and he understood as a practical centrist how his rulings would affect real people in the community.”
Jim O’Sullivan and Michael Levenson of the Globe staff and Globe researcher Jeremiah Manion contributed to this report. Milton Valencia can be reached at MValencia@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MiltonValencia.