Baker deepening his imprint on the courts

Gov. Charlie Baker. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Gov. Charlie Baker. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Gov. Charlie Baker is slimming down the state's list of judicial vacancies as he prepares to exit the corner office in January, but there are still at least eight spots that the Swampscott Republican could fill in the coming months.

Baker, who has picked all seven Supreme Judicial Court justices during his two terms, is looking at a light volume of vacancies that in part reflects the steady stream of nominees he has already pushed through to the bench this year. The governor's picks almost always are approved by the Governor's Council, an elected body that has the final say over his selections.

On Wednesday, for example, councilors are scheduled to vote on whether to send three new nominees to the bench, and plan to conduct four public interviews with other candidates.

Of the relatively few vacancies remaining, two of them are clerk magistrate jobs that come with lifetime tenure, unlike judgeships that are limited by a mandatory retirement age of 70.

Marlborough District Court has been without a top clerk since May 2021, according to data from the Judicial Nominating Commission, a panel that sifts through applicants and recommends potential picks to Baker.

The last person to hold the position, former Rep. Paul Malloy of Newton, had served since January 1983 when he was confirmed on Gov. Edward King's last full day in office.

King filled so many vacancies at the tail end of his term that the Governor's Council voted on 16 of his appointees during his final day in office, according to News Service coverage.

The Marlborough job has recently been filled on a temporary basis by Acting Clerk Magistrate Jennifer Lennon, according to the court's webpage.

Lennon's name was raised during a 2020 debate in the Governor's Council as members weighed Baker's choice of Damian Riddle to serve as clerk magistrate of Ayer District Court, where Lennon had also been "acting" clerk.

Councilor Marilyn Devaney took issue with the fact that Lennon was not getting the job permanently, and asserted that Lennon had applied for the post but was passed over by the Judicial Nominating Commission who did not invite her to be interviewed.

The other magistrate vacancy just opened up in July at the Somerville District Court after Kimberly Foster left her clerkship to become a judge. Somerville's acting magistrate is Rachel Hickey, according to that court's website.

While Baker has handed some clerkships to political allies, such as former Republican Rep. Sheila Harrington in Gardner and former Republican Governor's Councilor Jennie Caissie in Dudley, in some cases he has promoted from within, like his elevations this year of acting clerk magistrates Brian Costa in Salem and Erica Colombo in Malden.

Baker also has the chance to replace at least two members of the Superior Court and two members of the Appeals Court, according to his office, which said it anticipated upcoming retirements of four judges: in the Superior Court, Judge Laurence Pierce, a Patrick appointee, and Judge John Lu, a Romney appointee; and in the Appeals Court, Romney appointee Judge C. Jeffrey Kinder, and Judge James Lemire whom Baker promoted to that court in 2016.

And Baker could potentially make two more selections for the District Court system, where the number of judges is capped by state law at 158. While the technical list of vacancies may be lengthy (it currently includes openings dating to 1981, 1985, and 2002), the number of judges currently serving on the bench determines how many new ones can be seated.

There are currently 154 judges serving on the District Court, a judicial branch spokeswoman told the News Service Tuesday.

Three of Baker's District Court nominees are still pending before the Governor's Council — two of them are expected to come up for a vote Wednesday and another is scheduled for a pre-confirmation interview. If they are all approved, that still leaves one opening for the governor to consider in the short-term.

His office said it also anticipated that District Court Judge Thomas Barrett, a Gov. Paul Cellucci appointee confirmed in 2000, would be retiring later in the year.

Meantime, the workflow and will of the U.S. Senate could play into the governor's final months.

In July, President Joseph Biden tapped Ayer District Court Judge Margaret Guzman and Boston Municipal Court Judge Myoung Joun for seats on the U.S. District Court, though both of their nominations are awaiting action in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.


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