The assault allegations against Patricia Campatelli, the Suffolk register of probate, were serious enough to merit her suspension last Wednesday while the trial court investigates accusations that she drank heavily at an office Christmas party and then repeatedly punched an employee in the face. If the charges are substantiated, she should step down. But the accusations should also trigger a broader debate about why Campatelli’s job still exists as an elected position in the first place.
As register, Campatelli manages the paperwork for divorce, inheritance, and child custody cases in Boston, Winthrop, Revere, and Chelsea. The job description involves few, if any, policy decisions. The administrative task of handling the filings should go to a court-appointed manager; in recent years several counties and cities have moved in that direction, abolishing their elected registers.
But Massachusetts counties still elect their registers of deeds and probate — along with civil and criminal court clerks, also jobs with no policy-making role. That hoary tradition leaves the justice system vulnerable to ending up with officials like Campatelli, who won an unexpected victory in 2012 despite her track record of erratic behavior, which included allegations she sent abusive text messages to a former friend, posted profane rants on her campaign Facebook account, and knocked over a table during a confrontation at an East Boston restaurant. But she was elected because some voters felt she was, at least, different from the career politicians who usually gravitate toward those jobs — and who then treat them as a sinecure and a perch from which to dole out patronage jobs.
Obviously, someone has to manage paperwork for court cases. But that someone should be a professional appointed on the basis of solid qualifications. The current system serves nobody except the registers themselves, while doing real harm. It’s unfair to taxpayers to continue funding patronage mills, and it’s unfair to court employees to put them at the whim of politics. Worst of all, it’s unfair to people who rely on the courts to deliver justice, and deserve to have their cases handled by professionals.