Geraldine S. Hines, a child of the segregated South who became a civil rights attorney and appeals court judge in Massachusetts, will be the first black woman to serve on the state’s highest court, if confirmed by the Governor’s Council.
Governor Deval Patrick nominated Hines Friday to fill a Supreme Judicial Court vacancy created by the imminent retirement of Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland, the first black person appointed to the centuries-old high court.
Hines grew up in the Mississippi Delta region, according to a biography on the court system’s website. She is a 1968 graduate of Tougaloo College in Jackson and a 1971 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School.
“She grew up in the era of very difficult civil rights advances throughout the South, and I think she’s a byproduct of those struggles,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association and legal counsel to the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Appointments that reviewed applications for the post. “She’s very cognizant of civil rights issues and police misconduct involving minorities.“
Patrick, who leaves office in January, has appointed 158 people to the bench, 18 percent of them members of minority groups, not counting Hines and two other recent appointees who are awaiting confirmation.
Hines is 66, meaning she will serve about four years before hitting the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70.
If confirmed, she said, “I will labor with every fiber of my being to validate your trust in my ability to be a wise and fair judge of every issue that comes before the court.”
Hines, who lives in Roxbury, began her career working on prisoners’ rights litigation as a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. In the mid-1970s she practiced criminal law with the Roxbury Defenders’ Committee, where she worked with Ireland.
She was among the cofounders of New England’s first law firm composed of women of color, Burnham, Hines & Dilday.
She has dealt with her share of controversial cases. In 2012, she disappointed victims of a rabbi’s sexual abuse by sentencing the defendant to probation, rather than jail time. That same year, she authorized an East Boston bank to foreclose on the North End condo of former House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi after he was sentenced to prison for federal public corruption charges.
In 2008, after a defense witness was unable to appear at trial, she granted a mistrial in the murder case of a man accused of poisoning his wife by lacing her Gatorade with antifreeze. (He was later convicted at a new trial.)
While Hines has worked with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Healy described her judicial record as reflecting strong support for “individual rights.”
She has sided with individuals faced with anti-SLAPP lawsuits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, intended to intimidate or silence critics. For instance, in 2007, she dismissed a counterclaim by the Town of Falmouth against residents who repeatedly legally challenged construction of a sewage treatment plant, upholding the residents’ right to petition.
“She hasn’t been known to be liberal in sentencing,” said Healy. “I think she’s known as a no-nonsense judge. If someone deserves society’s punishment and deserves to serve time, she’s not afraid to impose that punishment.”
“I know her as a judge who is very concerned about developing the facts and being very careful to apply the law,” said Lisa Goodheart, a lawyer who previously chaired Patrick’s Judicial Nominating Commission. “She’s a careful purist.”
Goodheart said Hines is “very widely respected in the legal community,” and she praised her deep experience as a lawyer and a judge in both the trial and appeals courts. “At every stage, she just has demonstrated what a class act and quality mind she is,” she said.
Hines began her judicial career in 2001 as an associate justice of the Superior Court and has been serving as an associate justice on the Appeals Court since last year.
“She embodies every quality you would want of a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court,” said Appeals Court Judge Diana Maldonado. “She’s compassionate. She’s kind. She’s humane. She’s friendly. She’s thoughtful. She’s intelligent. She’s articulate. She analyzes well. She writes well. She’s always thinking, but she’s always applying it in a very human way.”
At the governor’s announcement of her nomination during a State House press conference Friday, Hines declined to characterize her judicial philosophy.
“I’m really not in a position to open up on that just yet,” she said. “There will be a hearing before the Governor’s Council, where I expect to answer any and all questions about what I think, what I believe, and how a judge should function.”
Due to a happy coincidence of timing, Hines’s 91-year-old mother was in town for the announcement and was able “to bear witness to the fruits of her constant nagging,” Hines joked.
“Looking back on my humble beginnings as a child of the segregated South and all that Jim Crow represented, a flood of emotions wash over me and an abundance of words that might be spoken about a day like today,” Hines said.
Patrick said that he is “in awe of” Hines “and all she has accomplished with unmatched intelligence, devotion, and grace.”
Early in his administration, Patrick, who worked as a top civil rights official under President Clinton, fielded criticism, including from Hines, about the limited number of minorities he was appointing to the bench, just 10.2 percent of his nominees by the end of 2008.
Over time, however, the governor’s record has dramatically changed.
Ireland, who became the first black chief justice, announced in March that he would retire effective July 25. Associate Justice Ralph Gants will succeed him, opening up a seat for Hines as an associate justice.
Although Hines will also be required to retire in a few years, Gants noted that the span is “nearly a full gubernatorial term” and that “one can do a lot of good in that time period.”
“She will hit the ground running,” Gants said, citing Hines’s experience. “She will be a true complement for our team of justices.”Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.