The decision by a bar association panel to recommend rejecting a controversial North Shore lawyer for a judgeship has created a rift between the legal community and members of the Governor’s Council — and thrust Governor Charlie Baker in the middle of a firestorm.
The Joint Bar Committee, which serves effectively as a peer review for judicial nominees, rarely turns down candidates after they have been vetted by the governor’s legal team. But last week, according to officials with knowledge of the panel’s decision, it refused to endorse the nomination of Edward O’Reilly, a Gloucester trial lawyer and political activist who once ran for the US Senate and Essex County sheriff.
Only in a handful of cases over the last four decades have governors ignored a Joint Bar Committee recommendation to reject a candidate. Citing that record, Baker, who had chosen O’Reilly as a candidate for a district court judgeship, said he will not submit O’Reilly for final approval to the Governor’s Council — a move that raised the ire of council members, who said the lawyers’ committee was usurping its power.
“While we respect the Governor’s Council’s point of view, the Joint Bar Committee has been an important part of the judicial confirmation process in Massachusetts since 1961,” said Billy Pitman, the governor’s press secretary.
But the Governor’s Council, acting at its meeting last week shortly after it learned the governor would not submit O’Reilly for confirmation, struck back at Baker by sidelining one of his judicial candidates for Superior Court who had been scheduled for a hearing. The date was canceled, with no future date set.
O’Reilly, 63, has had strong support from some of his North Shore legal and political colleagues, who praised his work as a defense lawyer. But a courthouse dust-up with a young district attorney in 2011, along with a verbal altercation with a judge, prompted an equally strong pushback from within judicial and prosecutorial circles, where questions were raised about his suitability for the bench, according to people with knowledge of the panel’s proceedings.
Through a legal associate, O’Reilly said he declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the selection process.
Indeed, the Joint Bar Committee’s rules demand confidentiality, requiring the lawyers’ group to deny the council members’ access to any of the findings it made in its review of O’Reilly’s qualifications. That has angered the eight elected council members — so much so that some of them are talking about removing the lawyers’ committee from the review process.
“Deliberations are highly confidential and will remain so,’’ said Martin W. Healy, the committee’s executive secretary. “The committee is not going to be marginalized or deterred from its important work.”
But its rejection of O’Reilly has again raised the criticism that the committee’s role in the judicial nominating process is exempt from public scrutiny and carried out by an elite group of lawyers.
“It is a huge insult to us,’’ said Eileen R. Duff, a Gloucester Democrat, member of the Governor’s Council, and strong O’Reilly supporter. “They are usurping our constitutional authority. They meet in secrecy, behind closed doors, and they are not even elected.”
She said the Joint Bar Committee confirmed to her that it rejected O’Reilly’s judicial application after having received strong opposition from some prosecutors and judges. O’Reilly, a Democrat, was once a strong ally of Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s, but the two had a falling out, multiple political and legal sources said. This, as well as other matters, had strong bearing on the committee’s rejection, Duff said.
But Duff and another councilor, Terrence W. Kennedy of Lynnfield, praised O’Reilly’s professional qualifications. Kennedy called him an incredibly good lawyer who has years of practice. Duff called him a well-respected, beloved attorney in the community.
“This looks like some personal assassination attempt on his character,’’ Duff said. “It’s hard to believe that anyone could find he could not be a judge.”
At a meeting last week, O’Reilly’s supporters on the Governor’s Council persuaded their colleagues to put a hold on a Baker nominee, Debra A. Squires-Lee, a lawyer at a Boston firm and also a Democrat who has donated mostly to liberal candidates. Baker nominated her for a Superior Court seat.
O’Reilly was cleared by Baker’s Judicial Nominating Council, the first major step in the nomination process. Once candidates are approved by the Judicial Nominating Council, the governor forwards the ones he wants to the 25-member Joint Bar Committee for review by the legal community.
The Joint Bar Committee, created by the Massachusetts and Boston bar associations in 1961, has no legal standing to block a candidate, but governors have traditionally accepted its judgments.
O’Reilly, who has practiced in the court for 35 years, has a reputation for getting emotionally invested in his cases. According to those familiar with his vetting, the committee was told of his physically confronting a prosecutor who in 2011 had refused to drop drunken driving charges against an elderly defendant with dementia. In another case, O’Reilly is said to have accosted a judge who ruled against him in a parking lot outside a courthouse.
As a political candidate, O’Reilly stirred some animosity within Democratic Party ranks when he challenged then US Senator John Kerry in the 2008 primary.
At one point, he called on Kerry to “clean up” the controversial — and mostly debunked — questions about the decorated senator’s experience commanding a swift boat in the Vietnam War. Those unsubstantiated questions were floated in the closing days of Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign by a right-wing-funded veterans group.Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.