Governor Charlie Baker’s top lawyer, who helped reshape the Massachusetts judiciary by overseeing the appointment of 130 judges — including five of the seven justices on state’s highest court — is stepping down after more than four years.
Lon F. Povich, the governor’s chief legal counsel, said he’s going to take a break from work as he figures out what his next gig will be.
At a news conference, Baker lavished praise on Povich, calling him a powerhouse lawyer and “an incredibly intelligent, incredibly quick, and incredibly adroit thinker.”
Robert Ross, a longtime presence on Beacon Hill known for his facility with complicated legal subjects and the state budget office’s general counsel since 2015, will succeed Povich, Baker announced.
Ross previously served as a key lawyer in the state attorney general’s office and, before that, as a top adviser to then-state Senate President Therese Murray.
The chief legal counsel is a unique and uniquely powerful position in state government, vetting and selecting candidates for the governor to appoint to the bench, advising the chief executive on myriad legal matters, and serving as a high-level liaison with the other branches of government.
Key players praised the tenure of Povich, a Democrat in a Republican administration.
“From the point of view of the judiciary, Lon has been an outstanding governor’s legal counsel — an excellent listener, fair-minded in his approach to challenging issues, dedicated to the selection of superb judges, and an articulate advocate of the governor’s positions,” Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court said in a statement. (Gants was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick.)
Povich, 59, was Baker’s lead negotiator on last year’s sweeping criminal justice reform package — laws focused on paring the number of people caught up in the courts, helping those who have served their time stay out of jail, and giving young offenders more leeway to avoid the system altogether.
Senator William N. Brownsberger, the key author of that law, said he spent dozens of hours going back-and-forth with Povich, and said working with him was a pleasure.
“Lon was tough but fair,” he said. “It was always about solving problems.”
Povich, and his team of five other lawyers, were the go-to people in helping the governor figure out how the law intersected with policy and political goals.
“It’s the ability to work in law and politics and policy simultaneously that makes the job so outstanding,” he said in a telephone interview.
Povich, the former general counsel at BJ’s Wholesale Club and Boston Consulting Group and a onetime federal prosecutor, said some policy highlights of his time in state government included helping to figure out how to regulate new industries, such as ride-hailing companies like Uber, the transient housing industry (think: Airbnb), and sellers of legal marijuana.
There also were consequential legal decisions that needed to be ironed out on the fly, Povich said. One came hours after the catastrophic series of natural gas explosions and fires that rocked the Merrimack Valley in September. The governor was not satisfied with the recovery efforts by Columbia Gas. But to put another company, Eversource, temporarily in charge required complicated legal maneuvers.
Povich remembers figuring out the details in conference calls with other lawyers as he was driving from the State House to an improvised emergency management headquarters in a Lawrence parking lot.
But the most lasting legacy any chief legal counsel has is probably on the courts. In Povich’s case, for each judicial vacancy, after receiving a list of potential candidates from the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, he and his team helped to slim down that list and then present the potential judges to the governor.
After Baker picked, Povich and his deputies took the lead in helping the 130 judge candidates get through a vote on the Governor’s Council, an elected advisory body that must consent to judicial appointments.
“Undoubtedly, the high quality and diversity of the governor’s judicial appointments reflected Lon’s commitment to judicial excellence,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association.
It’s hard to quantify the philosophical bent of the new judges.
But last year, a key case — on the constitutionality of a ballot question to raise the state income tax on Massachusetts’ highest earners and put that money into transportation and education — went before the Supreme Judicial Court, with five of seven Baker-appointed justices.
The 5-2 decision found the so-called millionaires’ tax ballot question unconstitutional. (One Baker-appointed justice was among the two, one Patrick-appointed justice among the five.)
For those not in the Massachusetts legal and political world, if the name Povich sounds familiar, it is: Lon Povich’s cousin is Maury Povich, of talk-show fame.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.