Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert J. Cordy announced his early retirement on Wednesday, a move that will give Governor Charlie Baker the opportunity to appoint a majority of the state’s highest court before his first term in office ends.
Cordy is 66 years old, four years short of the mandatory retirement of 70, an age that three other justices will reach by October 2017. The court has seven members.
Cordy, who was appointed to the court by the late Republican governor Paul Cellucci, did not offer a specific reason for his departure.
“It has been an extraordinary privilege to participate in its mission of ensuring fair, impartial and timely justice for all who come before it,’’ he said in a statement issued by the SJC. “I have served with wonderful, collaborative colleagues and an outstanding staff, all committed to excellence in furtherance of that mission.’’
Cordy is leaving before the only other Republican-appointed justice, Francis X. Spina, who reaches the mandatory retirement age this fall. At the State House, Baker told reporters he wanted a candidate with a solid legal background to take Cordy’s place on the high court.
“My view in this is to find people who are going to bring what I describe as . . . the appropriate temperament and sense of judgment to the job. The SJC is the highest and most important court in Massachusetts,’’ Baker said. “I’m going to want to place people in those roles who bring that type of temperament to the task, and that type of intellectual rigor.’’
When pressed on who might exemplify those characteristics, Baker said both Cordy and Spina, whom he got to know while chief of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, are good role models. “I would describe both of them as people who let the facts and the law take them where they need to go when they make decisions,’’ Baker said. “Very straightforward, very thoughtful.’’
Baker said he would rely on the Judicial Nominating Council to review candidates and recommend potential candidates once the formal process begins later this year.
Martin Healy, chief counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, predicted that the panel would have an abundance of applicants. “This is the opening salvo,’’ Healy said. “I can assure you there won’t be any shortage of candidates. I have never bumped into an attorney that hasn’t, at one time or another, thought about applying to the bench.’’
Cordy’s departure brought accolades from the current chief justice, Ralph D. Gants, and from a former former chief, Margaret H. Marshall, who wrote the majority ruling in the historic 2003 decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
Gants, who met Cordy in 1983 when both were federal prosecutors, said Cordy’s contributions were often not known to the public. “His energy and productivity is truly the stuff of legend,’’ he said, adding that Cordy consulted with judges in other countries seeking to establish court systems.
Marshall wrote in a statement that Cordy’s opinions were “timely, thoughtful and well crafted, even when he and I disagreed.’’ Cordy dissented in the 4-to-3 same-sex marriage ruling, concluding that it was the Legislature’s task to decide the issue, not unelected judges.
“I think that [dissent in the same-sex marriage case] reflected his deep respect for the separation of powers,’’ said Healy. “He was a great believer in the legislative process.’’
His stance more than a decade ago won’t define the legacy of Cordy, who was Governor William F. Weld’s legal counsel, a federal prosecutor, and a lawyer in private practice for 27 years before joining the court. He wrote 360 decisions while on the SJC, officials said.
“I think he was in the middle of the road, respectful of the separation of powers, and deferential to the Legislature when appropriate,’’ said Thomas J. Carey, Jr., an appellate attorney who leads the Massachusetts Bar section on appellate law. “But he had no compunction about exerting his judicial responsibility.’’
Cordy developed a reputation as a justice whose sharp questioning of lawyers during the court’s oral arguments showed his preparedness and his demand that the lawyers be equally prepared, lawyers said Wednesday.
He also took a strong interest in the administration of justice and in public access to the courts through the media. Cordy was a key player in pushing for the overhaul of what is now known as the John Adams courthouse in Government Center, which houses the SJC and the Appeals Court, and courthouses around the state.