Globe Editorial

This is no way to vet a judge; Governor’s Council must go

February 4, 2011

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AMID WIDESPREAD anxiety over looming cuts in education, municipal services, and aid for those in need in Massachusetts, there’s an easy way for the Legislature to prove its commitment to cutting waste: by passing Senator Brian A. Joyce’s bill to abolish the Governor’s Council. When the council was established in 1628, it had the important role of checking the power of the royal governor. Now, the eight-member panel is an inefficient rubber-stamping operation at best, and a drama-prone sideshow at worst. And it costs taxpayers more than $400,000 a year.

In the past, council members showed little sign of taking seriously their primary responsibility: approving gubernatorial judicial appointments. During one 2008 hearing, for example, the councilors asked a nominee only three questions — including “What’s your greatest strength?” — before voting 6-1 for approval.

But the results may be even worse when the council does anything more than just rubber-stamp the governor’s picks. Last month, three councilors almost succeeded in blocking the Supreme Judicial Court nomination of Fernande R.V. Duffly, a long-serving and well-respected judge. One seemed to focus narrowly on father’s-rights issues in custody cases. Another praised her intelligence and credentials after voting against her. Another seemed to disapprove of her statement that marriage is “an evolving paradigm” — after just voting to confirm a chief justice who’d concurred in the high court’s landmark gay-marriage ruling. The thin 4-3 margin for Duffly said less about her than about the odd machinations on the council. The final vetting of judicial nominees, who are first rigorously screened by two different panels, would be better carried out by the Legislature, as is done in many other states and at the federal level.

Abolishing the council would require an amendment to the state Constitution. Joyce’s bill would get the process under way, but the Legislature would have to approve the measure two separate times, and then it would go before voters. It’s a lot of work, but worth it. Bay State residents already voted to curb the powers of the Governor’s Council before, in 1964. Now they deserve an opportunity to finish the job.