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Obstruction to justice

The problem in Massachusetts just might be that judges aren't "activist" enough. Forget gay marriage. Consider the decision of a panel of federal judges to relegate to a footnote conduct by House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran that skates perilously close to perjury.

Judicial skepticism about Finneran's sworn testimony came in an appeals court decision last week that ordered lawmakers to redraw the lines of Boston's 17 legislative districts to correct the disenfranchisement of the city's black voters.

On the stand in federal court last November and in a previous deposition, Finneran had insisted that he exerted no influence on the 2001 plan that the three-judge panel rejected on Wednesday as racially biased. In fact, the speaker testified, he did not see any part of the plan, including his own district, until it was unveiled by committee chairman Thomas M. Petrolati, a Democratic state representative from Ludlow.

Despite an increase in Boston's non-white population from 1990 to 2000, the redistricting plan reduced the number of black districts and increased the number of white ones. A coalition of civil rights groups successfully argued that what the judges called the "single-minded effort to protect incumbents at virtually any social cost" was a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

"Although Speaker Finneran denied any involvement in the redistricting process, the circumstantial evidence strongly suggests the opposite conclusion," the US District Court three-judge panel observed. "For one thing, he handpicked the members of the committee and placed Petrolati at the helm. For another thing, he ensured that the committee hired his boyhood friend and longtime political collaborator Lawrence DiCara as its principal functionary. Last -- but far from least -- Finneran's in-house counsel, John Stefanini, had the Maptitude software installed on his computer in the speaker's office suite and was one of only four legislative staffers who received training in how to use the software."

Add Finneran's failure under oath to recall everything from the name of his district (the 12th Suffolk) to its racial makeup (74 percent minority before and 60 percent after redistricting eliminated black precincts in Mattapan and added white voters in Milton) and you have enough "circumstantial evidence" to warrant a perjury inquiry, an impeachment investigation, or both.

It is one thing for Finneran to play fast and loose with the truth in a legislative chamber that appears incapable of calling him to account. It is another still for him to display such contempt in a court case about something as fundamental as the right of minority voters to equal access to the electoral process.

This is hardly the first time the speaker has thumbed his nose at the judiciary. When the state Supreme Judicial Court ordered him to fund a campaign finance system approved by the voters in 1998, he used his budgetary authority to block it until he could engineer the law's repeal. Since the SJC ruled the ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, he has denounced "activist judges" for usurping the role of lawmakers, a role he abandoned himself by thwarting efforts for years to enact legislation to protect the rights of same-sex couples.

Finneran's implausible memory lapses and questionable testimony about the redistricting process ought to tip the scales at last against his leadership. His King Tom routine is an insult to the very institution, the people's house, that he is sworn to serve.

"In an ideal world, redistricting is a legislative prerogative, and we are hesitant to impose a remedy without first affording the Legislature an opportunity to act," the federal judges wrote. They gave Finneran six weeks to act to protect the rights of black voters, just as the SJC gave him until May to do the same for gay couples. Isn't it time to take note that, for Speaker Finneran, legislative action and obstruction of justice amount to pretty much the same thing.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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