Gov. Deval Patrick and the panel charged with approving his judicial nominees are increasingly at odds over his handling of his latest pick for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Patrick defended his decision last week to nominate Appeals Court Judge Barbara Lenk to the high court a day after three members of the Governor’s Council faulted him for focusing on the fact that Lenk would be the high court’s first openly gay member if approved.
Patrick pointed to Lenk’s decades on the bench and Ivy League education — including a Harvard Law School degree and doctorate from Yale University — and said her sexual orientation wasn’t central to his decision.
“She’s more than qualified, and I think the fact that she’s going to be the first openly gay member of the court is an add-on,” he said last Thursday.
Patrick bristled at the suggestion by one member of the Governor’s Council that he’d nominated Lenk as a way to cater to groups that have backed him politically.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Have you noticed that nobody said that when I put a white man on the SJC?”
Patrick was responding to comments by Councilor Charles Cipollini of Fall River, who said the governor was trying to satisfy political supporters, including the gay community, by choosing Lenk.
“He just picks different groups and this happens to be their turn,” Cipollini said last week. “He’s satisfying the people who voted for him.”
At a news conference on Monday, during which he announced he was nominating Lenk, Patrick said it was “a nice coincidence” that she would be the court’s first openly gay member.
Although Patrick did not mention Lenk’s sexual orientation when he introduced her at the news conference, he did respond when asked about it by reporters.
“I like the idea of firsts, as you know, and I’m proud of this one,” Patrick said last week. Patrick has also nominated the court’s first black chief justice, Roderick Ireland, and the first Asian-American member, Fernande Duffly.
Patrick’s talk of “firsts” drew criticism from two other members of the eight-member Governor’s Council.
Councilor Mary-Ellen Manning of Salem faulted Patrick for focusing too much on Lenk’s sexuality instead of her judicial record, while Councilor Jennie Caissie of Oxford called Patrick’s comments “odd.”
Caissie also questioned Lenk’s comments about the SJC’s landmark 2003 decision, known as the Goodridge case, which legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts, a first for the nation. Lenk was able to get married as a result of that decision.
“It was almost too jovial, the celebration of a case that was very controversial,” Caissie said of Lenk’s comments.
When asked about the Goodridge decision on Monday, Lenk said, “I understand and support its basic premise that our constitution stands for equality for all people.”
Patrick defended both Lenk’s comments and the Goodridge decision, which he supports, and said he expects his nominees to abide by court precedent.
“It’s the law of the land so I expect the justices of the Supreme Judical Court and nominees to respect the precedent of the court,” Patrick said.
He also sought to clarify his fondness for “firsts.”
“You know what’s first? It’s quality and if you look at all of the nominees, you’ll see that that has been the unifying qualification,” Patrick said last Thursday. “I like firsts, but what I like first and foremost is quality.”