Council confirms chief justice

Ireland says he’s surprised by probation problems

“Of course, I’m aware that I’m the first person of color to be the chief. But I’m also aware that I will be the chief for everyone, not just black citizens,” said Roderick L. Ireland. “Of course, I’m aware that I’m the first person of color to be the chief. But I’m also aware that I will be the chief for everyone, not just black citizens,” said Roderick L. Ireland. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Jonathan Saltzman and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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Roderick L. Ireland, a veteran associate justice on the Supreme Judicial Court, was unanimously confirmed by the Governor’s Council yesterday as the new chief justice and promptly said he was surprised by the magnitude of problems he faces in the Probation Department.

The council voted, 7 to 0, to confirm Ireland as the successor to Margaret H. Marshall, who is retiring. When he is sworn in Dec. 20, Ireland, the state’s first African-American associate justice, will become the first black chief justice of the SJC, the nation’s oldest appeals court.

Several members of the council praised Ireland, 66, a native of Springfield who has been an appellate and trial judge half his life, as ideally suited to lead the SJC and to confront a host of challenges, in particular how to respond to a patronage scandal in the Probation Department. The agency is part of the judiciary.

Nearly two hours later, a smiling Ireland stood next to the man who nominated him, Governor Deval Patrick, and said he was “very happy, grateful, and tired’’ at the conclusion of the confirmation process.

He said he was honored to succeed Marshall, the first woman chief justice and author of the landmark 2003 decision that made Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage.

Responding to questions from reporters about the crisis in the Probation Department, Ireland said he was surprised by last month’s devastating 337-page report on the agency by a special counsel appointed by the SJC following reports by the Globe Spotlight Team.

The critique by the counsel, Paul F. Ware Jr., found that the agency is riddled with fraud and systemic corruption and that the least qualified people were sometimes hired as a result of patronage.

“Like everyone else, I was struck by the dimensions and the depths of the maneuvering that went on,’’ Ireland said of hiring practices under longtime Probation Commissioner John J. O’Brien, who has been suspended.

But Ireland dodged questions about how he hopes to reform the agency. He pointed out that the department is the subject of criminal investigations by US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and state Attorney General Martha Coakley and is being scrutinized by other entities, including a task force appointed by the SJC and led by former attorney general Scott Harshbarger.

If probation officials are charged with state crimes, he said, the matter could ultimately come before the high court, so he needed to avoid saying anything that could lead to calls for his recusal.

Patrick and Ireland disagree about where the Probation Department should reside; the governor wants it in the executive branch, but Ireland has said the agency should remain in the judiciary.

Yesterday, Patrick downplayed the significance of a thank-you note that Robert A. Mulligan, the state’s chief administrative judge, wrote in 2000 praising O’Brien for helping a friend of Mulligan’s brother land a job.

Mulligan was a Superior Court judge at the time, with no direct authority over the Probation Department. But he now oversees the agency and was responsible for suspending O’Brien and appointing Ware to investigate.

The note was first reported in yesterday’s Boston Herald. O’Brien’s lawyer, Paul Flavin, told the Herald that the letter showed hypocrisy on Mulligan’s part because Mulligan has since said he is seeking to end patronage at the department.

But the governor disagreed. “The thank-you note was a thank-you note,’’ Patrick said. “I’m not going to offer an opinion about any one person writing.’’

“The issue is whether we have a professional and arm’s length way of engaging talent in probation,’’ he added. “And that, it seems to me, no one believes is the case today.’’

O’Brien supplied Ware with the letter and several other thank-you notes, but it was not included in Ware’s report. Ware said yesterday that he looked into the letter and could find no proof that Mulligan had recommended the candidate for a job.

Ware’s report does, however, acknowledge that many influential people, including judges, sought to influence hiring decisions in the department.

“Commissioner O’Brien had multiple opportunities to defend himself in this investigation, and if the best he can do is to trot out a thank-you note from 10 years ago, it would appear that we’re never going to have truthful testimony from Mr. O’Brien,’’ Ware said.

Mulligan said he did not remember whether he called O’Brien in an effort to help the job candidate.

“I had no inclination back then that Commissioner O’Brien was engaged in these fraudulent, corrupt hiring practices,’’ Mulligan said in an interview yesterday.

Flavin did not return calls from the Globe.

Several members of the Governor’s Council said Ireland faces problems apart from those in the Probation Department.

Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney said too many judges do not recuse themselves from cases, even though they have had dealings with litigants who appear before them.

Other judges, she said, are not accountable for their rulings or are simply unqualified.

Ireland, for his part, told reporters he was aware of the many challenges he faces, including budgetary problems, low morale among some employees, and public misconceptions about how the courts operate.

“Part of my job, I suppose, will be cheerleader for the court staff; part will be to educate the public; and I hope part of it will be to develop a good relationship with the Legislature and the executive,’’ he said.

He acknowledged the historic significance of his appointment, but did not emphasize it.

“Of course, I’m aware that I’m the first person of color to be the chief,’’ he said. “But I’m also aware that I will be the chief for everyone, not just black citizens.’’

Ireland’s elevation means the Patrick will have to nominate a new associate justice. He plans to make an announcement soon, he said.

Saltzman can be reached at; Bierman at