*Updated* Patrick picks SJC judge


Update: Patrick chooses Botsford for SJC

Thursday, July 26
BOSTON — Gov. Deval L. Patrick has decided to appoint Suffolk Superior Court Judge Margot Botsford to the Supreme Judicial Court, replacing the late Martha Sosman, according to a top Democrat familiar with the appointment process.

Deliberations behind the appointment to the state's highest court have been extremely secretive, with Patrick conducting his final face-to-face interviews on Tuesday at a location away from the Statehouse, a move intended to avoid media scrutiny or political gossip. He was set to unveil his pick at a news conference scheduled for 10 a.m. today at the Statehouse, said the Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in advance of the formal announcement.

Despite being in office over six months, Patrick has not appointed any justices to Superior or District court positions as the Democrat reconstituted the state's Judicial Nominating Commission after 16 years of Republican control over the governor's seat.

"This is a choice that's going to be almost unanimously applauded in the legal community," said David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a prominent legal community trade paper. "She's an intellectual giant, she's well respected, she has a wonderful way about her personally."

Botsford, 60, is a former assistant attorney general and Middlesex County prosecutor first appointed to the bench in 1989 by former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the last Democrat to serve as governor prior to Patrick. Botsford's husband, Stephen Rosenfeld, was Dukakis's legal counsel and remains a Democratic Party activist.

"It's been long thought in the legal community that had we had a Democratic governor, she would have been long ago appointed to the SJC," said Yas. "The conventional wisdom was that she suffered with successive Republican governors because of her perceived links to the Democrats."

A 1969 graduate of Barnard College, as well as a graduate of Northeastern University's law school and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Botsford has been a Superior Court justice for 18 years. She is perhaps best known as author of the so-called 2004 Hancock report, a 350-page analysis for the high court that concluded the state underfunded poorer school districts.

Botsford recommended the high court order a cost study and implement whatever funding and administrative changes are needed. That raised the possibility that lawmakers would have had to rewrite the state's landmark 1993 Education Reform law, passed in response to an earlier an SJC ruling.

But the SJC subsequently found the state had made education reform a fiscal priority and said it was not the role of the court to intervene as reforms are being enacted.

Botsford has often sat in Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield, including on Tuesday, when Patrick conducted his final round of interviews with potential SJC nominees, and part of the day yesterday. She was tentatively scheduled to return to Pittsfield today, though it was not clear last night whether the nomination would change her schedule.

Berkshire Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini said Botsford is "everything you want in a judge. It goes without saying that she is very bright, thoughtful and very fair." He described her as a leading member of the court, someone to whom other judges turn with questions about difficult cases.

"Equally important, she has a real down-to-earth personality and a great sense of humor, and I think you need those qualities," Agostini said.

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Conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly has labeled Botsford a liberal and criticized her in 2005 after she sentenced a former Catholic priest to 8 to 11 years, with 10 years' probation, after he pleaded guilty to felony sexual abuse, including crimes on five boys. The former priest, Robert Burns, had previously been convicted of child molestation in New Hampshire.

Botsford, who could have imprisoned Burns for life, said that while he had "permanently and very profoundly" damaged the boys, he had shown contrition and psychological progress after spending three years in a New Hampshire prison.

Sosman, 56, died March 10 of respiratory failure. She was one of three SJC judges who voted against the high court's landmark 2003 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

Since the ruling, the SJC has issued several decisions that have worried gay rights activists, including ruling that a proposed constitutional amendment to ban future same-sex marriages could be placed on the ballot if approved by the state Legislature.

Lawmakers subsequently voted not to allow it on the ballot.

Gay-marriage activists have been hopeful that Patrick, a supporter of gay marriage, will nominate a justice who shares his views.

Patrick has focused on the courts since taking office. In the first executive order of his governorship, Patrick reconstituted the Judicial Nominating Commission, which screens for judgeships. He named Lisa Goodheart as chairman, and John Griffin and Elizabeth Morse as vice chairs.

Patrick said then that he wanted to recruit a "diverse pool of strong, decisive and effective judges" from all over the state.

On March 21, the new governor went further, appointing 18 people to fill out the commission. Patrick directed the commission to not only seek a replacement justice for Sosman, but also to begin screening candidates for Superior and District court vacancies.

The governor sought six to eight applicants for appointment to the SJC, and the commission accepted applications through April 24.

Eagle reporter Jack Dew contributed to this story.

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