Patrick looks for another SJC first

Asian-American Duffly is nominee

Governor Deval Patrick introduced Appeals Court Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly at the State House yesterday. “I believe very deeply in equal access to justice,” the first Asian-American nominated to the Supreme Judicial Court said. Governor Deval Patrick introduced Appeals Court Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly at the State House yesterday. “I believe very deeply in equal access to justice,” the first Asian-American nominated to the Supreme Judicial Court said.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / December 22, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick, deepening his imprint on the state’s highest court, nominated what would be its first Asian-American justice yesterday, declaring that the highest ranks of a state’s government should reflect the diversity of its people.

He nominated Appeals Court Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly, 61, to fill the seat held by Roderick L. Ireland, who on Monday was elevated to chief justice, becoming the first African-American to lead the Supreme Judicial Court.

If confirmed by the Governor’s Council, Duffly would be Patrick’s fourth appointment to the seven-member court, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest appellate panel.

“For someone who has spent much of her career as a lawyer serving the public interest, there can be no higher calling than this,’’ said Duffly, a Cambridge resident. Duffly said she supported the SJC’s 2003 decision to legalize gay marriage as a matter of equality.

Duffly described her core legal value as access: “Every single person with every issue has a right to be heard fully and to get the full attention of every justice,’’ she said yesterday. “I believe very deeply in equal access to justice.’’

Patrick, the state’s first black governor, has spoken often of his desire to appoint women and minorities to institutions historically dominated by white men. Duffly moved to the United States with her family from Indonesia when she was 6.

She recently served as president of the National Association of Women Judges, where she urged law firms to promote women, and testified before the US Senate on behalf of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

“Quality and preparedness are first, obviously,’’ Patrick said yesterday. “But the ability to be first . . . this adds a depth to our SJC. It adds a range of brainpower and judgment and wisdom.’’

Like Ireland, Duffly was first appointed to the bench by a Republican governor and is now being elevated by Patrick, a Democrat. She was nominated by Governor William F. Weld to probate and family court in 1992 after a 14-year career in a law firm, and has served as an Appeals Court justice since 2000.

Duffly had been on a short list to join the high court since at least 1999, when she was under consideration by Governor Paul Cellucci, the Republican who put her on the Appeals Court.

Yesterday, Duffly, who goes by Nan, recalled her family’s journey to America, where she arrived without the ability to speak English. “Many, many kind people provided us with shelter, food, and opportunity,’’ she said.

Her commitment to public service, she said, “is the debt that must be repaid.’’

For Duffly, that meant an active career outside the courtroom. She has served on local and national committees promoting volunteerism among lawyers and improving access to the courts for people who serve as their own attorney. She has also worked as an advocate for women.

“She’s been really trying to push law firms on the issue of women partners and making their statistics clear,’’ said Renee M. Landers, a Suffolk University law professor and former president of the Boston Bar Association. “Are women real partners? Are they really equity partners?’’

In July, in testimony supporting Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Duffly said she believed “that the presence of women and minorities on a court has an impact on overall decision-making that goes beyond the opinions of the female or minority judges themselves,’’ according to written testimony.

The interplay between judges, she testified, “opens them to new ideas that those from diverse backgrounds can bring.’’

On the bench, lawyers praise Duffly’s warm demeanor and energy.

“She values moving cases along and she tries to cut through all the side issues and get right to the core of it,’’ said Ned Notis-McConarty, a probate attorney at Hemenway & Barnes who has worked with her on volunteer issues and practiced in front of her. “She doesn’t hesitate to be very creative in the way she does that. She has a lot of confidence, intellectually.’’

Duffly’s nomination was also praised by the Boston and Massachusetts bar associations, and Appeals Court Chief Justice Phillip Rapoza, who called her “articulate, thoughtful, energetic and committed to seeing that justice is done.’’

No group has come forward so far to oppose her. In recent years, SJC nominations have not elicited great controversy, unlike Supreme Court nominees, who face intense scrutiny from activists across the political spectrum.

Duffly and her husband, Paul, a clinical psychologist, have three grown children and a 19-month-old granddaughter.

The Governor’s Council, an elected body whose primary responsibility is confirming judges, is expected to take up her nomination next month, after newly elected members are sworn in. The eight-member council, now all Democrats, will add two Republican members.

Duffly said she has not, in the past, pictured herself as a member of the SJC.

“I don’t know if you want to call it an aspiration,’’ she said yesterday. “I never really thought I’d be here.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at