PITTSFIELD — For the first time in 17 years, Francis X. Spina isn't preparing for the opening of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sessions in September.
The Pittsfield native, who will turn 70 later this year, is retiring after a distinguished legal career that included work as a public defender, an assistant district attorney, assistant city solicitor, a private practice attorney, a Superior Court judge, state Appeals court judge, and since 1999, one of the seven justices on the state's highest court.
"Justice Spina has been a wonderful colleague," said Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants. "I am going to miss him."
Spina grew up on Pittsfield and still resides here. After graduating from Amherst College and later Boston College Law School in 1971, Spina worked as a staff attorney at Western Massachusetts Legal Services, working on welfare rights cases and landlord/tenant law. He rose to the position of managing attorney in the Springfield office before moving on to work as the assistant city solicitor in Pittsfield.
He was appointed to the Superior Court in 1993, to the Massachusetts Appeals Court in 1997, and to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1999 by the late former Gov. Paul Cellucci.
Gants said in a recent interview that Spina was "invariably a gentleman," especially during the crafting of opinions when justices meet to debate and offer criticism of the drafts with the aim of producing a finished opinion of the court.
His criticism was always offered in a respectful, professional manner, Gants said, and was invariably valuable as well. Gants remembered a critique by Spina of one of his draft opinions that "caused me to change it for the better."
"He has always been one of the unsung heroes," Gants added. "Anytime something needed to be done, even something not terribly glamorous, he would step up."
For that trait, Spina earned the nickname "Saint Francis," Gants said. "That was coined by [Justice Geraldine] Hines, but it immediately stuck. He has always been willing to take on a difficult task."
Served at many levels
Spina took on many roles during his long career, and he speaks with enthusiasm of each.
"I enjoyed being a general practitioner," he said during an interview, though he added, "Those days are gone."
In the practice of law, he said, "once you get outside the big firms, it really depends upon the middle class. I hung up my shingle in Pittsfield and started taking whatever cases walked through the door — and you become a family lawyer, much the way doctors were family doctors."
In those days, Spina said, "you did a lot of different kinds of cases, and people could afford to pay you, and most lawyers made a good living but were not what you would call wealthy."
Today, "the complexion of society has changed dramatically," he said. "Depending on the county, it's 80 to 90 percent of [parties] in Probate Court who cannot afford a lawyer. It's a huge problem. Most people charged with a crime are assigned a public defender. So it's much more difficult for lawyers — as it is for most people."
The variety of experience and versatility from working through issues in multiple areas of the law was something Spina said he has relied upon even while writing decisions on the high court.
Early in his career, Spina was a partner with the Pittsfield law firms of Reder, Whalen, and Spina from 1983 to 1987, and after that, as partner with the law firm Katz, Lapointe and Spina from 1987 to 1993.
"Not only was exposure to a great variety of areas of practice helpful to me as a judge," Spina said, "but my exposure to many wonderfully ethical lawyers in Hampden and Berkshire counties helped me develop an understanding and appreciation of best practices."
He said he was "especially grateful to Ed Lapointe, Dave Katz and L. George Reder."
Asked about the most memorable cases during his 17 years on the court, Spina said, "To me, the most important case is the one I am working on today, I just think in fairness to the parties it has to be the way. But some cases I have been involved with involved more notoriety than others."
Among those was the decision related to thousands of state drug lab test reports signed by former state chemist Annie Dookhan, who later admitted tampering with evidence, throwing into doubt whether the defendants had received a fair trial.
"We decided defendants who pleaded guilty in those cases were entitled to a presumption of irregularity in the first step of analysis of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea," Spina said.
He said the trial judges would still have to decide whether the defendant would have pleaded guilty anyway.
"My understanding is that in the vast majority of cases, the judge did not allow them to withdraw the guilty plea," Spina said, adding that "some have gone back to trial and the juries have with some consistency been convicting them nonetheless."
Although he did not oppose same-sex marriage, Spina was one of three justices who dissented to the landmark Supreme Judicial Court decision in 2003 that made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage.
"We dissented generally on grounds of procedure," he said. "We thought it was too important a question. It was essentially a question that involved a dramatic social change and should have been put to the voters; it should not have been decided by the court. None of us was against same-sex marriage."
In Diatchenko vs. Suffolk County District Attorney, Spina said the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling followed a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court determined a juvenile accused of murder cannot be sentenced to life without parole without the juvenile receiving a hearing "as to whether he is incorrigible."
Spina said that was based on the neurological science of the juvenile brain, which said the brain continues to develop up to age 25. The U.S. Supreme Court "drew the line at 18 years old," he said.
However, the Supreme Judicial Court "went one step further" in Massachusetts, saying a juvenile does not even require a hearing as to whether he or she can be considered for parole in the future. That means a juvenile, unlike an adult being sentenced, can't receive life without parole and must be at least considered for parole, not necessarily granted release, Spina said.
Asked about political pressures the justices sometimes feel, Spina said, "We don't cave in to political pressure, but it's there, and there is always the threat that the budget might be reduced or set below what we are looking for — and oftentimes it is set below what we are looking for when there is no political pressure; there are just financial considerations."
The bottom line, he said, is that "We have tremendous respect for the Legislature and the governor. We always try to work with them on common problems, common administrative problems."
Those include issues like trial procedures, court system computerization upgrades, and time standards.
"We have tried to establish [trial] time standards that work," Spina said, adding, "if the Legislature or the governor have a particular concern about the way certain kinds of cases are being handled, we will sit down with them and try to understand their concerns and come up with solutions."
Speaking about those inevitable times when the political heat is unquestionably on, Spina added, "We are all big boys and big girls, and there is a separation of powers, and invariably somebody is going to be unhappy with someone else. And they have to understand, and we have to understand, that each department of our government has a responsibility to carry out and they are doing it in good faith."
"That's the presumption — that everyone is preceding in good faith, even when they're unhappy," he said. "And I've got to say that in 17 years on the SJC there have been some uncomfortable times, but we have gotten through every one of them, and so have the other branches of government."
"It makes the job interesting," he said. "I guess the most important message is that you have to proceed respectfully, carefully, but also confidently, firmly — all three branches have to proceed that way."
After he retires, Spina intends to spend more time with family. He has two grown daughters, Francesca and Stephanie.
His wife, Sally O'Donnell Spina, passed away in March.
Having majored in music with a concentration in piano while at Amherst, Spina said he wants to go back to the piano on a more regular basis. "It's unfinished business in my life," he said.
He said he once hoped to be a good amateur musician and now plans to work with a teacher in his retirement and pursue performance opportunity in the Berkshires.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.