Roderick L. Ireland was sworn in today as chief justice of the state's highest court, becoming the first black person ever to hold the office in the history of the court, which spans more than 300 years.
"This is the right man at the right time," said Patrick, the state's first black governor, who swore Ireland in before an ebullient crowd of hundreds at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. "It gives me personal pride to appoint the first African-American as chief justice to the SJC."
Ireland thanked his family, especially his 92-year-old mother, who held the Bible as the took the oath. Ireland, who was an associate justice of the court for 13 years, also thanked everyone who worked in his office, from the cleaning crew to the court security officers to his law clerks.
He also thanked the pioneers who had paved the way for a black person to rise to such a high office. "Today is really not about me. It's about the collective efforts of many, many peep who have worked and died to make today possible. Hopefully, someday it will not matter what the race of a person is but right now it seems to," he said.
Ireland, who was appointed to the court as an associate justice in 1997, replaces Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, who is retiring.
Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray praised Ireland's knowledge of the law and his understanding of the court system, saying, "His work to date greatly prepared him for this challenge and honor."
The crowd included a host of current and former public officials, including former governor Michael Dukakis, Attorney General Martha Coakley, various district attorneys, and state senators and representatives.
In his 33 years on the bench, Ireland has proven himself a thoughtful and self-effacing jurist who listens intently and seldom parades his own knowledge, friends and lawyers who have appeared before him told the Globe.
His appointment is a remarkable success story. He rose from modest beginnings in Springfield, where a school counselor once recommended that he attend a trade high school to become an auto mechanic.
As leader of the state court system, he does face challenges, including a scandal in the state Probation Department. He said earlier this month that he was surprised by the magnitude of the problems there, but dodged questions about how he hopes to reform the agency.
The SJC, established in 1692, is the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere.