Adrian Walker

Once a check, now a joke

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 9, 2011

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The Governor’s Council has been the focus of an unusual amount of attention the past few months — and that has been bad news for the councilors.

Three high-profile nominations to the Supreme Judicial Court have brought scrutiny to elected officials whose behavior just might bring back memories of the class clowns who made eighth grade so amusing.

As a result, the Legislature — seizing a chance to appear statesmanlike — has begun discussing taking tentative steps toward abolishing the council, one of he oldest elected bodies in America. History suggests the bid will almost certainly fail, which is really too bad.

The Governor’s Council was once a good idea, and for all I know it was once a reasonable body. But that would have been decades ago. Among its functions is confirming justices, and in this role it has been, frankly, a mess.

I attended the hearing on making Roderick Ireland chief justice, succeeding Margaret Marshall. The hearing got off on a nice note, with Marshall lending her support to Ireland, her longtime colleague. But it slid off the rails almost as soon as the councilors started talking.

Some were interested, oddly, in bashing Marshall for the Globe’s coverage of the state’s Probation Department, a patronage haven some councilors seem to hold dear. Mary-Ellen Manning berated one witness by suggesting that the administration was engaged in some conspiracy in which bar association presidents carry water for the governor in exchange for becoming judges.

Several witnesses seemed thrown by the sheer inanity of the questions, as well as the inexplicable hostility of some of the questioners. The subsequent hearings for Fernande R.V. Duffly and Barbara Lenk did not produce case studies of good government, either. It was apparent that the council is not big on trailblazers for diversity, which all three nominees were. And we learned that at least one councilor, Charles Cipollini of Fall River, is not a huge fan of gay marriage, either.

Getting rid of the council has been a gleam in many a governor’s eye. But abolishing an elected body is, rightly, a heavy lift, requiring amending the state Constitution. The Legislature must vote in successive constitutional conventions to place the question on the ballot. Voters must then approve it. That process takes at least three years.

One thing the council has going for it is that it performs most of its duties in relative obscurity. That means voters don’t have many opportunities to think about their governor’s councilor, and thus do not get offended as often as they otherwise might. Even if the Legislature wanted to get rid of the council, keeping public anger stoked long enough to accomplish that goal won’t be easy.

With all the abuse being heaped on the council, it seems only fair to note that it did ultimately approve each of the governor’s nominees. The process wasn’t pretty, but the same could be said of many an elected body. They did, in spite of themselves, ultimately get it right.

Some critics have suggested that the Senate take over confirming justices. Certainly Senate hearings would cut down on the weirdness that often marks council proceedings. Also, senators — who face the voters every two years — are far more accountable.

But the Senate doesn’t seem to especially want the job. That leaves the possibility of a joint House-Senate committee. Turning SJC confirmations over to an unelected body such as the Judicial Nominating Commission is too antidemocratic to ever garner support.

The council was originally thought of as a way to check the power of the governor. Now it’s an anachronism, and not necessarily a harmless one. It is the longest-running sideshow in Massachusetts politics, but I wouldn’t expect it to close anytime soon.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at