Baker nominates Appeals Court chief for state’s highest court
Governor Charlie Baker on Monday nominated Scott L. Kafker, the state’s top appeals judge, for a seat on the Supreme Judicial Court, the latest milestone in his dramatic reshaping of the state judiciary’s highest level.
If confirmed, Appeals Court Chief Justice Kafker would be Baker’s fifth appointment to the seven-member Supreme Judicial Court in the 2½ years since Baker took office. Kafker has served on the Appeals Court since 2001.
At an afternoon press conference, Baker said Kafker had authored close to 1,000 decisions, modernized and improved management at the courts, and created a pro bono appellate clinic for self-representing litigants.
“I have tried my best to decide every case fairly and impartially, and treat every person in the judicial system with fairness and dignity and respect,” Kafker said at the State House, where Baker announced his nomination.
Asked Monday how he viewed the opportunity to name five judges to the state’s high court, Baker replied that “the greatest measure of how seriously we’ve taken this process are the people that we’ve nominated. They are all exceptional jurists, exceptional minds, and exceptional people.”
“I think nominating five people to serve on the SJC — yes, of course — is a significant part of our legacy,” Baker said.
Legal observers said the impact of Baker’s court choices would be likely to long outlast his governorship.
“I don’t recall a governor who has had an opportunity to this degree. This type of impact in such a short time, I believe, is unprecedented,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
“The majority of the justices he has appointed will have many years ahead of them to shape the court,” Healy added. “I believe the court he has appointed will be more middle-of-the-road, moderate.”
John Pucci, who served last year on a handpicked committee to vet Baker’s choices for the Supreme Judicial Court, said the governor’s handprint on the high court will prove “an extraordinary legacy.”
“Overall, they lean a little bit to the right, but in a modest, moderate way,” Pucci said.
Pucci said the SJC has featured at least one justice from Western Massachusetts “almost uninterrupted since the Civil War,” a streak that came to an end last year with the mandatory retirement of Francis X. Spina of Pittsfield, an associate justice.
“Baker has had now five choices and he’s swing and missed on all five for Western Mass., and I think it’s fair to say that will be a disappointment to our community, both legal and more broadly,” said Pucci, who is based out of Springfield.
Baker aides said the governor has nominated 76 judges for all tiers of the court since taking office in 2015, 71 of whom have been confirmed and three of whom are awaiting votes or hearings at the Governor’s Council. Eleven of them, the aides said, have hailed from the western part of the state.
The council, which votes on judicial nominees, approved Kafker on a 7-1 vote in 2015 to lead the Appeals Court.
If confirmed, Kafker would join four other Baker appointments to the SJC: Kimberly Budd, Elspeth “Ellie” Cypher, Frank Gaziano, and David Lowy. All received unanimous confirmation.
Kafker, who has sat on the bench since 2001, was Baker’s pick to serve atop the Appeals Court two years ago. Like Baker, he is a veteran of former Republican governor William Weld’s administration.
“There were many very late nights spent in this building with Scott and various members of the Legislature, working our way through a variety of things,” Baker recalled during Monday’s press conference.
A graduate of Amherst College and the University of Chicago Law School, Kafker worked as an associate at Foley, Hoag & Eliot, according to an online biography. He became Weld’s deputy chief legal counsel in 1991. Two years later, he became chief legal counsel at the Massachusetts Port Authority.
Governor Paul Cellucci tapped him for the Appeals Court in 2001.
A Swampscott resident like Baker, Kafker, 58, said he recovered from cancer in 1990.
Healy, chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association, called Kafker “an outstanding pick” and a “leading constitutional scholar and well-respected appellate court leader.”
“His unparalleled intellect will complement an already strong bench at the top of our judicial system,” Healy said.
The seat that Kafker would fill is currently held by Justice Geraldine Hines, who faces the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70 this year.
Matthew Kafker, the judge’s son, pleaded guilty last fall to vandalizing a chapel while he was a student at Northwestern University. Kafker and another man allegedly spray-painted racist and homophobic slurs, reproductive organs, and the word “Trump” inside a campus chapel. Hate-crime charges were reportedly dropped and the two received fines and community service.