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Patrick picks state’s first black chief justice

Glen Johnson

Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, nominated Roderick L. Ireland last week to be the first African American chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC).

Ireland, now the senior associate justice on the high court, would replace the retiring Chief Justice Margaret Marshall if he’s confirmed by the Governor’s Council, a process that could take as little as a month.

“We are making history again today,” Patrick said, noting Marshall had been the court’s first female chief justice.

Nonetheless, the governor insisted race was a “secondary or tertiary” consideration.

“The most important thing was to get a nominee who was going to be absolutely committed to the fair administration of justice, who could understand the issues that come before the court are issues that involve human beings, trying to sort out their problems and resolve their disputes, and that there are faces behind those concepts,” Patrick said during a Statehouse news conference.

Ireland, a native of Springfield’s racially mixed Hill neighborhood, said, “My nomination says that anything is possible no matter where you come from or what your background is.”

Frederick Hurst, a black attorney and newspaper publisher who has been Ireland’s friend since childhood, beamed as he watched, saying afterward he was proud of the high achievement by someone from “the ‘hood.” He described Ireland as both smart and funny.

Ireland was appointed to the SJC in 1997 by then-Republican Gov. William F. Weld, making him the first black justice in the 318-year history of the oldest appellate court in continuous operation in the Western Hemisphere. He previously served on the Massachusetts Appeals Court for seven years and the Boston Juvenile Court for almost 13 years.

Ireland received his bachelor’s from Lincoln University, his juris doctorate from Columbia University Law School, a master’s from Harvard Law School and a doctorate from Northeastern University.

During his swearing-in ceremony, Ireland said he would likely be the first justice mistaken for a parking valet — an incident that occurred at his daughter’s wedding two years earlier in Boston.

The son of a painter and schoolteacher, Ireland also mentioned being advised by a high school guidance counselor to try trade school instead of pursuing college.

Last Thursday, he said breaking racial barriers was not a conscious pursuit.

“Throughout my career, I’ve always just tried to focus on doing the best job that I could do and not worry about the implications,” he said. “My goal has been to perform at my highest level possible, and I’ll let other people interpret that in terms of race.”

Ireland is 65 and can be chief justice for only five years before reaching the court’s mandatory retirement age.

He did not dispute reports that he had initially refused the nomination, laughing as he surrendered the podium to Patrick to answer. The governor said, “I’m not going to get into all the backing and forthing.”

The chief justice administers the seven-member court and oversees the Massachusetts trial and appellate court systems.

Marshall has resisted budget-cutting efforts, and Patrick said he did not extract a promise from Ireland for the courts to help him close a projected $2 billion deficit next year.

Another key power of the chief justice is the authority to decide which justice writes an opinion. Marshall reserved that for herself in 2003 when she wrote the court’s 4-3 decision to make Massachusetts the first state to legalize gay marriage. Ireland concurred with that ruling.

Asked to described his judicial philosophy, Ireland said crisply: “Call ‘em as you see ‘em, be fair and let the law dictate where you go.”

Court watchers say Ireland has written or joined in decisions that range across the political spectrum.

“He doesn’t strike me as a judge who can be categorized as liberal or conservative,” said David Frank, a former state prosecutor who writes for Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

In 2008, Ireland wrote a unanimous ruling in which the SJC found that online stings by police posing as children can be used to win convictions even if the suspect just sends messages and never goes to meet the fictitious child.

Ireland also wrote a unanimous decision upholding the classification system used by the state’s Sex Offender Registry Board to determine the level of danger posed by sex offenders. Another ruling he wrote found that inmates’ personal and savings accounts may be docked by prison officials as a disciplinary sanction.

Michael Cassidy, a Boston College Law School professor, noted that the chief justice is the titular head of the entire state court system, not only deciding cases but acting as advocate for the judiciary.

“It says a lot about access to justice in Massachusetts that an African American has been selected for that role, so I think symbolically it’s very important,” Cassidy said.

In nominating Ireland, Patrick also positions himself for a second appointment to the court. If confirmed, Patrick would also get to pick Ireland’s replacement as associate justice.

Marshall announced her retirement in July, saying she wanted to spend more time with her ailing husband, former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. Patrick asked her to stay until after Tuesday’s election to avoid politicizing his selection. The governor, a Democrat, ended up winning a second term.

He said there was nothing particular about Ireland’s appointment that concerned him, only the general political climate.

“I could nominate Mother Teresa and the nominee would have been caught up,” Patrick said to laughter.

All court nominees in Massachusetts have to be approved by the Governor’s Council, a nine-member panel led by Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray.

Associated Press reporters Bob Salsberg and Denise Lavoie contributed to this story.