Gov. Charlie Baker's latest nominee to the Supreme Judicial Court is an Appeals Court judge with a background in intellectual property litigation who built a robot while studying engineering at MIT.
Judge Dalila Argaez Wendlandt, if confirmed to the post by the Governor's Council, would be the first Latina to serve on the state's high court.
"The daughter of immigrants from Colombia, Justice Wendlandt will bring her voice to our highest court, a voice we need now more than ever," Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said at an election day press conference at the State House where she and Baker introduced Wendlandt. "She has served as a mentor for women and girls throughout her career and the impact she would make in this new position, for young girls to see the first Latina woman serving on our highest court in the commonwealth, is profound."
Her nomination, which comes after Baker last week tapped Associate Justice Kimberly Budd to serve as the court's next chief justice, moves the second-term Republican governor a step closer to having chosen the full SJC bench.
Of the current six justices — one seat is vacant after the death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants — Baker has appointed five, and the sixth seat will open up when Justice Barbara Lenk retires later this year.
Referencing Gants' death and another former justice's ailing spouse, Baker said some of those appointments "involved a couple of really crummy, awful things."
"I take all of these nominations, every single one of them, especially as somebody who's not an attorney, really seriously because the courts really matter, and the people who sit in those chairs really matter," he said.
Wendlandt, 51, was born in New Orleans. She graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at MIT before attending Stanford University Law School.
She said Tuesday that making the transition from engineering to law was "obvious" for her.
"Engineering requires you to look at the data and follow it where it goes, and to roll up your sleeves when there's a problem that looks like it's unsolvable," she said. "For me the law is very similar especially when you do high-end legal work. Often, the answer is not clear, but if you're confident in your skills, you roll up your sleeves, you bring out the big guns and you just do your job."
Spanish is Wendlandt's first language, and responding to a reporter's question, she said in Spanish that her parents came to America from Colombia to realize their dreams for their children, and that her late father was watching her from heaven with pride.
Baker said Wendlandt was "part of a familiar American story that sometimes gets lost in all the noise of today's politics." He said she has often been one of the only women and the only Latina "in many of the rooms she's been in throughout her academic, business, legal and judicial career."
"She's done nothing but shine in all of them," he said. "Every single one."
Baker first appointed Wendlant to the bench in 2017, selecting her for the Appeals Court seat that opened with Justice Elspeth Cypher's elevation to the SJC.
"I would expect her expertise in science and technology would be a terrific asset to the court on more than just case law," he said Tuesday. "Each branch of the government will need to deploy technology and more creative ways to meet the demands of the public in the 21st century. Her colleagues also describe her as thoughtful and kind, because she often leaves a well-timed note for someone who's run into trouble, and she bought a sewing machine to teach herself how to sew masks for health care workers when the pandemic struck."
Before becoming a judge, Wendlandt was a partner in the intellectual property litigation group at Ropes & Gray LLP. She clerked for Judge John Walker Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit after graduating law school in 1996.
The Governor's Council, which will vet Wendlandt for the SJC post, unanimously confirmed her for the Appeals Court. Councilor Eileen Duff lauded the news of Wendlandt's nomination to the high court, calling the judge "a brilliant choice for Massachusetts."
"Not only does she have a wide range of legal experience, but her extensive engineering and technology background brings a depth of knowledge in an industry that will become particularly relevant to the court system in the years to come," Duff, a Gloucester Democrat, said in a statement. "It is essential to have diversity on the Supreme Judicial Court and I commend Governor Baker on nominating a second woman of color to the state's most powerful bench."
Budd, if confirmed, would become the first Black woman to serve as chief justice.
In picking Wendlandt, Boston Bar Association President Martin Murphy said Baker "made another commendable, historic nomination to Massachusetts' highest court."
"As demonstrated by her experience as a highly-respected litigator who argued before the US Supreme Court, and more recently on the bench, Justice Wendlandt has a brilliant, creative, and methodical legal mind," Murphy said. "Her background — which includes a master's degree in mechanical engineering, pro bono work on asylum applications and a death-row appeal, and a commitment to improving work-life balance for attorneys at her prior firm — will bring a unique perspective to the Court and assist in their work on some of the most challenging issues in the Commonwealth."