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July 18, 2011

Misunderstanding the Governor’s Power to Appoint Judges Under the Massachusetts Constitution

As reported in the Boston Globe last week, the justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court asked Governor Deval Patrick for a moratorium on judicial appointments. The recent budget cuts have severely undermined the ability of the courts to administer justice in the Commonwealth, and, as Associate Justice Robert J. Cordy put it, the system “can’t even support the judges we have in our courts now.”

The reaction from the Governor’s office was defensive and critical. The governor’s legal counsel, Mark Reilly, admonished the SJC for “this attempt to constrain the governor’s constitutional authority,” while Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray stated that, despite the request by the justices, the governor would continue to make judicial appointments.

The Governor’s representatives—and perhaps the Governor himself—appear to be laboring under a misunderstanding about exactly what authority the Massachusetts Constitution provides the executive when it comes to judicial appointments.

Under the Massachusetts Constitution, the governor has the power to nominate and to appoint all judicial officers, with the advice and consent of the council. Importantly, nowhere does the constitution say that the governor is obligated to appoint judges when positions are vacant; rather, the constitution simply makes clear that the governor has the authority to fill vacancies in his discretion.

What this means, of course, is that the governor may choose not to use this authority, and to leave some judicial positions empty. The justices of the SJC were asking the governor to do just that, and for good reason: it makes no sense to fill judicial vacancies when the Massachusetts court system is in a state of fiscal crisis.

As recently reported, the court system’s funding has been reduced by 16 percent in the past three years. The system has lost more than a thousand employees in that time and now is faced with the prospect of shuttering almost a dozen courthouses in order to operate within its budget. Each new trial judge appointed will result in the court system laying off three staff members.

Neither the legislature nor the governor appears to recognize that the court system is not just another state agency. Rather, it is a co-equal branch of government charged with constitutionally-mandated tasks—namely, “the impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice.” When the ability of courts to perform these core functions is severely threatened, the judiciary is not without recourse: it has long been understood that, as a constitutional matter and in appropriate circumstances, the courts have the power to prevent the impairment of their core functions due to inadequate facilities or resources.

At the moment, that power remains untouched. It is understandably a last resort, and the request that the governor suspend judicial appointments until the crisis has been resolved can be seen as an effort by the SJC to ensure that it remains a last resort. That the governor views this reasonable request as a threat to his authority to make judicial appointments is not just legally mistaken, it is short-sighted. Now is the time when the governor should be leading the effort to resolve the funding crisis, so that sooner rather than later he can resume making judicial appointments without further undermining an already overburdened court system.

Lawrence Friedman

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