Mass. SJC Justice Cypher's surprise retirement gives Healey first high court pick

Justice Elspeth Cypher, then a senior judge on the Appeals Court, stands with the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants at a press conference in 2017. (SHNS)
Justice Elspeth Cypher, then a senior judge on the Appeals Court, stands with the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants at a press conference in 2017. (SHNS)

Supreme Judicial Court Justice Elspeth Cypher plans to step down in January, giving Gov. Maura Healey a chance to appoint someone to the state's highest court early in her first term.

The SJC announced Monday that Cypher, who turned 64 in February, will retire from the court on Jan. 12, 2024 after a nearly seven-year tenure. A court spokesperson said Cypher "wants to devote her time to teaching and research."

Healey, in a meeting with reporters Monday at the State House, offered few details on the qualities she'd be looking for in a justice. She said, "I'll be looking for the very best person that we can find to be the next justice of the Supreme Judicial Court."

Cypher will take a position at Boston College Law School for the spring 2024 semester as a Huber Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law. She said in a statement that she is "looking forward to pursuing my love of teaching."

Her departure will come several years before Cypher turns 70, the mandatory retirement age for Massachusetts judges, and creates the first vacancy on the SJC since Healey was elected in November.

Healey's predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Baker, saw the entire court turn over during his two terms and appointed all seven current members.

"On behalf of the people of Massachusetts, I'd like to offer our deep gratitude to Justice Cypher for her decades of service to our state and wish her the very best in her well-earned retirement," Healey said. "Our administration is committed to appointing a distinguished Supreme Court Justice who will uphold justice, equality and the rule of the law."

A 1986 Suffolk University Law School graduate, Cypher began her legal career as an associate at the Boston law firm of Grayer, Brown and Dilday and then spent nearly two decades in the Bristol County district attorney's office as an assistant DA and then chief of the appellate division.

She joined the judiciary in 2000, after Gov. Paul Cellucci appointed her as an appeals court justice and she won approval from the Governor's Council. Baker picked her in 2017 for a spot on the high court, and again the elected council confirmed her to a new role.

"Justice Cypher has brought her keen knowledge of the law and the constitution to the appellate courts for over two decades, serving on the Supreme Judicial Court for the past six years," said SJC Chief Justice Kimberly Budd. "She has been an exceptional friend and colleague and an active role model to the many people who count her as a mentor. We are deeply grateful for her service to the people of the Commonwealth."

Healey has not nominated any judges six months into her four-year term, and several openings loom on the Superior Court.

Last week, Healey sent her first nomination to the Governor's Council, proposing another five-year term on the Parole Board for Dr. Charlene Bonner.

A Healey spokesperson said the governor will form a nominating commission to navigate the process of picking Cypher's replacement and added that the administration "will have more details in the coming weeks."

Born in 1959, Cypher is still more than half a decade away from bumping up against mandatory retirement age — in fact, none of the current SJC justices are expected to hit that threshold during the current gubernatorial term.

While many serve until they turn 70, some judges have opted to leave before reaching obligatory retirement, such as Justice Robert Cordy, who in 2016 departed the SJC to return to his former law firm.

State House News Service's Sam Doran and WBUR's Steve Brown contributed reporting.

This article was originally published on June 12, 2023.



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