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7-year review proposed for judges

Would require an amendment

By Michael Norton and Colleen Quinn
State House News Service / May 11, 2011

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State Representative Thomas A. Golden Jr. opposes the idea of electing judges and says he is aware of the many considerations judges take into account when sentencing criminals.

But the Lowell Democrat is standing behind a proposed constitutional amendment requiring judges to face the Governor’s Council every seven years for a public hearing and reconfirmation vote.

“I just think that no one should be appointed for life,’’ Golden said.

Golden said no single case spurred him to file his plan. He said he was motivated by cases in which criminals end up reoffending and the actions of judges are perceived as too lenient.

“This is by no means an attack on judges,’’ said Golden, whose proposal is on the calendar of the Constitutional Convention set to kick off today.

Edward Ryan Jr., a lawyer and chairman of the Massachusetts Bar Association task force on fair and impartial courts, said that a review system for judges would hurt the court system.

“It is important to have an independent judiciary so a judge is not looking over his or her shoulder,’’ Ryan said.

“Are we reviewing the decisions we disagree with, if it doesn’t agree with the popular notion of something?’’ he said. “Here, as has been evidenced by recent confirmation hearings, one wonders if the focus is one’s agenda, rather than somebody’s ability to call the balls and strikes fairly.’’

If judges’ decisions were up for review, Ryan said, it could jeopardize future decisions, such as the one that legalized gay marriage in the state.

State Representative Daniel Winslow, a former district court judge, said he was also concerned about the possibility of judges losing their jobs every seven years. To serve on the bench, judges often given up successful law practices, he said.

“If the most successful lawyers have to walk away from law practices, then risk losing judicial service, it would create a tremendous disincentive’’ to serve as a judge, said Winslow, a Norfolk Republican.

Hampden Probate and Family Court Judge David Sacks, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Judges Conference, said the association has opposed similar proposals because other states with periodic reviews or elections for judges experience problems.

“I think we are at hallmark status of combining judicial independence and impartiality,’’ he said of Massachusetts. “We are able to make decisions based on evidence and law without having to worry about how it is going to affect the next election.’’

While Golden wants to enhance the role of the Governor’s Council, state Senators Robert Hedlund and Brian Joyce are leading efforts to abolish the council and come up with a new body to vet judicial candidates.

Councilor Marilyn Devaney circulated a letter to lawmakers yesterday making her case for preserving the council. “It may not be a perfect system, but there is not a better system to change to,’’ she wrote.