With three justices announcing their pending retirements within a week and two more closing in on mandatory retirement age, the state Supreme Judicial Court will undergo an identity shift in the year ahead.
Francis Spina, a former Berkshire Superior Court judge, Fernande R.V. Duffly. and Robert J. Cordy have all announced their pending retirements, and two more judges must depart in 2017 when they reach age 70. That gives Governor Baker the opportunity to nominate replacements for five of seven justices.
The state SJC famously legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, a brave ruling that led to similar state rulings and ultimately its legalization by the US Supreme Court. It is seen as a liberal court, but its decisions, including the landmark ruling of 2003, are consistently based in established law and precedent, which cannot always be said of its Washington, D.C.-based counterpart.
Governor Deval Patrick, who named the SJC's first black chief justice, black woman and openly gay jurist, made his mark on the court, but his five appointments came over two terms, not within less than two years. Chief Justice Ralph Gants has set up a committee to look at candidates with an eye toward assuring a racial, ethnic and gender diversity that reflects the state. The governor's nominees will have to win approval from the Governor's Council, an often unpredictable body.
The flurry of openings on the state Supreme Judicial Court provide a timely reminder that the next U.S. president will likely get to appoint one or two members to the U.S. Supreme Court. That is one of the most important and far-reaching decisions a president can make, which is something voters should consider when they go to the polls this election year.