SPRINGFIELD — Tara Jacobs and John Comerford are facing off to represent western Massachusetts, including the Berkshires, on the Governor's Council. The two met in a televised debate Monday in Springfield ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
The Governor's Council is tasked with advising the governor on issues including appointments of judges, Parole Board members and other positions, as well as pardons and commutations. Members serve two-year terms.
Jacobs, a North Adams resident and School Committee member, beat several candidates in the Democratic primary in September. Comerford, a Republican from Palmer, ran unopposed in his primary.
On Monday, Jacobs and Comerford debated at an event co-produced by Focus Springfield and New England Public Media. MassLive, The Republican and The Eagle were event partners.
Here's how the candidates answered some of the questions. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
· QUESTION: While Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd has significant family ties to Springfield, no sitting SJC justice is a western Massachusetts resident. Is this a factor you'll consider when considering nominations? And will you urge the governor to appoint western Massachusetts judges to the SJC?
Jacobs: "We have not had representation on the Supreme Judicial Court from western Mass. for far too long — over a decade at least. And I think that matters. It's part of what we're talking about when we talk about not being well represented in Boston. We absolutely should have a voice at that particular panel. So yes, persuading the governor to nominate a western Mass. person to the SJC is absolutely a priority, as too is advocating for positions in western Mass. — judicial positions in our district and Supreme (Judicial) Court — to be filled from people who are from the area and representational of the communities that they will serve."
Comerford: "Well, suggesting to the governor that he nominate people from your district is fine, except for the fact that as a governor's councilor, you don't really counsel the governor on anything. You may get to talk to him or her once in a while, but you don't get to counsel them on anything. The problem with saying we want people from the district to be nominated, is, first of all, they have to apply. You know, the governor just doesn't reach out and say to someone, 'I want you to be [in] Superior Court. I want you to be do this.' The individual has to apply for the position, and there has to be an open position."
· QUESTION: The Council also approves members of the Parole Board. What qualities would you prioritize in future members of that board and why? And what criteria would you look for in granting parole or commutation?
Comerford: "I'm not in favor of parole or commutations. There were two commutations done fairly recently of two convicted murderers. All eight of the Democratic Governor's Council members approved the commutation. I would have said no. I read up on their crimes and because of these two gentlemen, a family member was killed. And a family is probably still crying today about that. I would have said absolutely not. ... For the Parole Board, I would look for somebody that's been involved with law enforcement in some capacity, not necessarily an attorney, but maybe a retired police officer or something of that nature. But somebody has been involved with the system before."
Jacobs: "In terms of Parole Board, it's one of the areas that I am very interested in — in, hopefully, bringing more diversity to that board ... more people of color and Spanish-speaking (people), but also background. Currently, it is very heavily representational of our law enforcement and prosecutors. And I really think we need to extend that to have points of view at the bench who are more reflective of things like social work and mental health, to diversify those voices. In terms of pardons and commutations, I think they are an important tool that are a symbol of hope and a reason to work towards rehabilitation. Without them ... it detracts from what the goal of our justice system is."
· QUESTION: Some law enforcement officials and public leaders have complained that judges are too lenient in terms of bail. Do you agree, at least to the point of considering it in your view of candidates for judgeships?
Comerford: "I believe that the judges are being too lenient, without question. ... If you come before me as a Governor's Councilor, I will vigorously question you on your beliefs about bail, about letting people out that shouldn't be out in the street. My very strong belief is that we oftentimes let too many people out that shouldn't be out."
Jacobs: "People who are dangerous to themselves or society, we definitely need to have held until their trial. But so often ... bails that are seemingly set low for your average person are unattainably expensive for those who are already struggling financially. And it can have a devastating impact on losing their job, losing their apartment, losing their resources. So I think it's a more nuanced answer that I would [have to] go at length to really fully answer for you."