Ireland vows to increase transparency

Begins tenure as SJC chief justice

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By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / December 21, 2010

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Moments after he was sworn in as the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, becoming the first African-American to hold that position, Roderick L. Ireland pledged to create less intimidating courthouses and grapple with the impact of budget restraints.

“The harsh reality is that for the foreseeable future we will have fewer resources and we will have to continue to work together under ever more demanding circumstances to provide the same high level of quality and services that we have always provided to ensure that justice is done in our courts,’’ Ireland said.

With his family sitting nearby, he placed his left hand on a Bible held by his 93-year-old mother and repeated the oath of office read by Governor Deval Patrick. Thunderous applause then erupted inside the Great Hall at the John Adams Courthouse in downtown Boston. Ireland shook hands with fellow justices, then lifted his arms before addressing the crowd of about 350, which included former governor Michael S. Dukakis and Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Ireland, who is taking over the position vacated with the retirement of Margaret H. Marshall, is the latest of a string of Patrick appointments to the SJC. If Patrick wins confirmation of a justice to replace Marshall, he will have appointed a majority of the court’s seven members in the past four years. Patrick said yesterday that he will fill the vacancy “soon, soon; stay tuned.’’ He will make another appointment to the high court when Justice Judith A. Cowin, 68, reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Patrick said he believes that Ireland will bring to the court, “an approachability and understanding that the judgments of the courts are about real issues in real people’s lives.’’

Ireland’s appointment is the latest chapter in a remarkable success story. He rose from modest beginnings in Springfield, where a school counselor once recommended that he attend a trade high school to become an auto mechanic. In 1977, he became a judge at the Boston Juvenile Court. In 1990, Ireland was named a justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court and, in 1997, of the SJC.

Norman Huggins, an assistant clerk at Suffolk Superior Court, said he has known Ireland since 1971. “I take credit for his getting to where he is today,’’ Huggins said with a laugh. “Because when he first applied for judgeship in the juvenile court, I applied, too, but he got it. If he hadn’t got it, I might be here today.’’

Ireland said yesterday that as an African-American, he may see things differently than his fellow justices.

“Another part of my story as it relates to race is that when I was a judge on the Appeals Court, I was mistaken for a parking valet,’’ he said. “The telling part of this story is that I was wearing a tuxedo and I was waiting for my car as I stood outside one of Boston’s fanciest hotels on the day of my daughter’s wedding. So obviously I’ve had some experiences that are probably different from those of my colleagues on the SJC, and that means I may look at the world a little differently.’’

He said one of his priorities is to make the system more transparent. “For those of us who work in the court system, there is a familiarity about the processes that go on every day and we take for granted, but to those who aren’t familiar with the court system, going to court can be scary and intimidating,’’ he said.

Brian Ballou can be reached at