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Strained ties for SJC chief and governor

Ireland, Patrick at odds over probation proposal

Roderick Ireland and Governor Deval Patrick stood side by side in December after the Governor’s Council confirmed Ireland as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. Roderick Ireland and Governor Deval Patrick stood side by side in December after the Governor’s Council confirmed Ireland as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / May 5, 2011

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Four months after the governor stood beside Roderick L. Ireland and made history by elevating him to chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, their relationship has frayed as they tangle over one of the most politically charged issues on Beacon Hill: how to reform the scandal-ridden Probation Department.

Twice since assuming the role of chief justice, Ireland has used his position to undercut Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to remove the probation agency from the judiciary’s control and place it under the executive branch. That activism has raised hackles at the highest levels of the Patrick administration, according to sources with direct knowledge of the wrangling.

At one critical point, Ireland even made an unusual trip to the governor’s office to explain himself, those sources said.

As head of a separate branch of government, Ireland does not report to Patrick and has no obligation to justify his actions. But his move was nonetheless unexpected. While chief justices routinely advocate for judicial funding, it is atypical for them to take a stand on such a highly charged political issue. In part that is because they are required to interpret laws drafted by the Legislature.

Ireland said that he and the governor continue to have a good relationship, though he declined to discuss details.

The fissure began in January, weeks after Ireland became the state’s first African-American chief justice. He penned a column for the Globe opinion page in which he advocated that probation remain under the judiciary.

But he gave no warning to Patrick or his administration prior to its publication. That prompted Patrick’s chief of staff, Mo Cowan, to confront the chief justice. It was an uncomfortable task for Cowan, who has long considered the 66-year-old Ireland as a mentor in his earlier private legal career.

Cowan has declined to discuss what transpired in that conversation. The sources said Ireland explained to Cowan that Patrick and his staff should not have been surprised by the column, pointing out that he had previously stated his position on the subject, during his very public December confirmation hearing.

Ireland’s explanation apparently did little to assuage Patrick. The chief justice was soon making a visit to the governor’s office, in a private session, with only the two of them present. A source said Ireland has described the meeting to his colleagues at the Supreme Judicial Court as having been very uncomfortable.

Still, neither what Patrick said to him in private, nor the strain it placed on their relationship, deterred Ireland from speaking out a second time.

In April, he appeared at a State House press conference with House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and other legislative leaders in a show of support for DeLeo’s plan to keep probation under the judicial branch. Two of his SJC colleagues, Robert J. Cordy and Fernande R.V. Duffly, were there, as well. The governor’s staff was again caught off guard, the sources said.

Originally, the event was set to take place at the John Adams Courthouse, where the SJC is headquartered. But the venue was changed when the court’s veteran staff suggested it would be improper to hold a political press event in the courthouse.

It is almost unheard of for the head of the state’s highest court to attend a press conference taking sides in a State House political struggle. It is even more unexpected because the current struggle pits the governor, who just elevated Ireland, against the legislative leadership, which controls the court’s budget.

David L. Yas, former editor and publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and a longtime observer of Bay State legal affairs, said the Massachusetts legal community is cheering for Ireland, convinced he is standing up to what they see as a power grab by Patrick. Still, he said, Ireland’s decision to weigh in on a major policy issue is highly unusual.

“It is absolutely rare for a chief justice to stand up with the speaker at a press conference to oppose the governor,’’ said Yas, who is now vice president of Bernstein Global Wealth Management. “It is an unusual squaring off.’’

Patrick’s plan calls for the executive branch, not the judiciary, to oversee the Probation Department, which the governor has proposed merging with the state Parole Board. The speaker’s proposal, by contrast, would keep probation under the judicial branch, with new layers of oversight and a more transparent hiring process.

In a statement, Ireland declined to offer details about his recent conflict with Patrick, but defended his role in helping to shape the probation reorganization. “The leaders of a branch of government have a major role to play when the management of that branch is the subject of legislation,’’ Ireland said.

He said he agreed to work with DeLeo and House leaders after meeting privately with the speaker, in addition to meetings with Patrick and with Senate President Therese Murray, to advocate for the judiciary’s interest in the reorganization.

Perhaps more controversial than breaking ranks with the governor was Ireland’s decision to join lawmakers, many of them embroiled in the scandal over the Probation Department.

Last year, after the Globe outlined a system that allowed politically connected job candidates to be hired over those with better qualifications, an independent investigator, Paul F. Ware Jr., said that the department had been receiving unjustified increases to its budget in recent years as a reward for hiring friends and associates of lawmakers.

The scandal pulled in a number of legislators, including DeLeo, who, like many of his colleagues, was found to have had a history of recommending candidates for jobs. Late last year, both the US attorney’s office in Boston and Attorney General Martha Coakley began subpoenaing records and House and Senate leaders retained private attorneys. No charges have been filed, and there is no indication that DeLeo violated any laws.

The SJC’s spokeswoman, Joan Kenney, said the court is not involved in those inquiries. “When matters are referred by the court to the office of the US attorney or the attorney general, for example, those agencies do not report to the court on the status of the investigations,’’ she said.

Ireland’s strong presence in the political tug of war is not only unexpected, it is out of character, some say. When Patrick elevated the mild-mannered Ireland as chief justice, his friends predicted he would maintain a lower profile than his predecessor, Margaret Marshall.

One of them was Julian T. Houston, a retired Superior Court judge who has known Ireland for 40 years. “I’m not sure that Justice Ireland will be quite as outspoken, quite as prominent,’’ he said.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.