Attorney Julieann Hernon said one of the reasons she is proud to be a Massachusetts resident is because the state does not have the death penalty.
“It has a corrupting influence,” on the judicial system, Hernon told members of the Governor’s Council Wednesday during her confirmation hearing for a judgeship.
Gov. Deval Patrick nominated Hernon for a seat on the district court circuit.
As a young attorney, Hernon worked to overturn death penalty cases in Louisiana for the Loyola Death Penalty Resource Center. Hernon said she first worked on death penalty cases while attending law school at Northeastern University during a “co-op” in Louisiana. She later returned when she graduated.
She described one case in which she represented a death row inmate.
Leonard Hart Jr. was an African-American man convicted of first degree murder by an all-white jury in a parish where more than 30 percent of the population was African-American, Hernon said. During a robbery, Hart tied up an elderly man in his home. The victim eventually untied himself, but collapsed trying to get help. He was not found for a few days, and died in the hospital 10 days later, Hernon said. Hart was sentenced to death.
It was the first case Hernon tried before the Appeals Court. She was able to get Hart’s conviction reduced to second degree murder and he is now serving life without parole instead of facing death.
Hernon has spent most of her career as a public defender.
A Milton resident, she has been the attorney-in-charge at the Committee for Public Service Counsel Services’ Quincy office since 2009, and has practiced with the agency since 1997. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
In discussing sentencing, Hernon said personal responsibility plays an important role when looking at a case. “You can’t just say you get a pass because your life was difficult,” she said.
The key for a judge is to keep everything in balance, she said, weighing personal responsibility but also recognizing people’s struggles.
Councilor Jennie Caissie asked Hernon about her membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. Hernon said she joined at 18 years old, during a time when she was fascinated by the First Amendment and contemplating becoming a reporter. Caissie brought up the fact that a few weeks ago the council interviewed a candidate who was a member of the National Rifle Association.
“I don’t think the commonwealth is well-served by ideologues on the bench,” no matter their leanings, said Caissie, the lone Republican on the council.
Councilor Michael Albano applauded Hernon for joining the ACLU, as well as her work on death penalty cases.
Councilor Marilyn Devaney told Hernon she was concerned about her experience, describing it as “kind of lean” because she has not worked in private practice or on the prosecution side.
“Clearly you have an excellent demeanor and temperament. We know that from your witnesses,” Devaney said.
She added, “It is more than just voting for a good person.”
Devaney complained about the Judicial Nominating Commission, the body that vets and recommends judicial candidates to the governor, accusing the committee of not properly posting open positions. Devaney said the JNC puts candidates forward who were passed over the first time they apply for a judgeship. She said the judicial candidate is put to the top of the list when another position opens. Devaney argued it is unfair because other attorneys do not have a chance to compete for the new opening.
“There is no open process for people to apply,” Devaney said.
Councilor Oliver Cippolini said he was bothered that the position Hernon was being considered for was not posted.
Judicial candidates are considered potential nominees for an 18-month period, authorized by an executive order, according to Patrick administration officials. It is not uncommon for candidates to apply for one open position and later be nominated to serve as a judge in another vacancy.
Last week, councilors voted in favor of Cynthia Brackett, who previously applied for a position in Fall River District Court and was ultimately confirmed to serve as a judge in Taunton District Court – a vacancy not posted.
“As many people noted today, Juliann Hernon is a talented candidate, and is highly qualified to serve on the district court bench,” Kate Cook, chief legal counsel to Patrick, said in a statement to the News Service. “Thanks to the wealth of impressive candidates seeking judgeships in Massachusetts, It is commonplace for an individual to apply to serve in one court, and be nominated by a Governor to serve in another.”