Governor Deval Patrick announced this morning that he is nominating veteran associate justice Roderick L. Ireland as chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, an appointment that would make Ireland the first black person ever to lead the venerable body.
"We are making history again," Patrick said to applause at a State House news conference with Ireland that included some of Ireland's oldest friends from his native Springfield.
Patrick lauded Ireland for his "wisdom and genuine concern for each and every litigant that comes before his court."
"My nomination says that anything is possible," said the 65-year-old Ireland, whose school guidance counselor decades ago suggested he become an auto mechanic. He had already made history as the first black associate justice on the court when he was appointed in 1997.
Chief Justice Margaret Marshall announced her retirement from the state's highest court earlier this year, saying she wanted to spend more time with her husband, Anthony Lewis. The former New York Times columnist has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
By elevating Ireland to chief justice, Patrick -- who made history himself as the state's first black governor -- still has the opportunity to appoint a new, seventh justice. The name of that nominee was not released today.
Patrick's choice must be approved by the Governor's Council. The board, which has been all-Democratic for nearly decades will have two new Republican members, beginning in January.
Ireland, a Milton resident, credited the "people who have helped me along the way" at the news conference.
"Springfield is where I learned about hard work and the importance of education," he said, recalling a recent visit to his childhood elementary school there.
Ireland had been seen by some observers as a less likely prospect for the job because of his age. All state judges must retire at age 70.
But Patrick told reporters, "We have just the right person at the right time for the needs of the Commonwealth."
Patrick also defended delaying the announcement of Ireland's nomination until two days after the election, saying he didn't want the nomination to become part of the "backing and forthing" of the campaign.
Ireland, who was nominated originally to the court by former Republican Governor William F. Weld, is the most senior member on the bench of the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere. The court was established in 1692.
Known to his friends as "Rick," Ireland earned an undergraduate degree from Lincoln University in 1966, his law degree from Columbia University Law School in 1969, and a master's in law from the Harvard Law School in 1975. He also earned a doctorate in law, policy, and society from Northeastern University in 1998.
Ireland began his legal career as a public defender in Roxbury and then worked in state government. In 1977, he was appointed to the Boston Juvenile Court. In 1990, he was named to the state Appeals Court and then elevated by Weld to the SJC seven years later. He is also currently an adjunct professor at Northeastern University.
Ireland grew up without exceptional means -- at one point, a guidance counselor said he had a future as an auto mechanic -- but he was surrounded by a close-knit family and community that pushed him to excel, the Globe reported in a 1997 profile.
Ireland was among the majority in what is perhaps the most-watched decision of the court in decades, the 4-3 decision in 2003 legalizing gay marriage in the state.