Local Officials Push for Judicial Accountability in the Commonwealth

Wednesday, August 01, 2018
Guest MINDSETTERS™ Sen. Anne Gobi, Ryan Fattman, Chief Wojnar & Jennie Caissie

Senator Anne Gobi
Our Constitutional Republic is founded upon the idea that government is of the people, by the people and for the people, not above the people. No one serving in elected or appointed office should be above this standard, including those in our judicial branch.

In the wake of recent tragedies and loss of innocent lives, we believe it is time for meaningful, bipartisan reform in judicial accountability in Massachusetts.

Judges are appointed for life in Massachusetts, and command a position of power and respect. The prestige of their position is reflected in their compensation, benefits, and retirement because the decisions they make carry great consequence, altering the lives of our citizens and society. But to whom much is given, much is required. And what is required today is far different than the process our Founding Fathers Established in the Massachusetts Constitution in the 1780s for judicial accountability.

Judicial accountability only exists in two forms, the first of which is extremely rare, and the second of which is surreptitious: (1) impeachment as outlined by the Constitution (2) confidential judicial evaluations that are performed by the Supreme Judicial Court of each judge, shared with them, and then destroyed.

Under the first method of accountability, only three judges have ever been removed from office since the Massachusetts Constitution was enacted in 1780. The last judge removed by the Governor's Council was before the Civil War in 1821.  Under the second method of accountability, we simply do not know the consequences for each judge as the process is not salient to the public.

In the near-term, more scrutiny and transparency is required in the judiciary. First, Massachusetts General Law Section 211 must be changed to allow this to happen. Judicial performances evaluations should not be confidential, and only reviewed by a small group of unelected judges. These performance evaluations must be public and available to the Governor's Council, the elected body responsible for vetting and appointing judges, and to elected members of the legislature serving on the Senate and House judiciary committees. This increased transparency on the conduct of life-time appointed judges will provide greater insight into our judicial system.

Second, the Governor's Council should be able to conduct open, transparent, and public hearings reviewing judicial performances.

Finally, there must be a constitutional amendment brought before the legislature to enhance judicial accountability that empowers the Governor's Council to review a Trial Court judge every five years, and by super majority, be able to unappoint said judge. This process will be lengthy, requiring citizens to collect thousands of signatures, two Constitutional Conventions of the Legislature over a four-year period where 50 members elect to vote affirmatively, and a vote on the ballot by the voters of the Commonwealth.  Although arduous, it is a worthy and important endeavor we hope to lead.

Let us be very clear; we do not want to elect judges, nor do we want to encroach upon the founding father's vision of an independent judiciary. We understand the need to have a separate but equal judicial branch.  But there must be a healthy balance between independence and accountability.

Are we to believe in a state that boasts of the world's oldest Constitution, that in over 200 years of existence, only three judges have been worthy of criticism so great they were due for removal? Recent tragedies where clear patterns of direct and indirect judicial decision making irrevocably impacted the lives of law enforcement officials and families answer the question: no. Poor judgment as evidenced by poor outcomes, or poor behavior by a life-time appointed official, should not only call into question the opinion of said judge, but also question their very appointment.

Moreover, these efforts are not designed to impede upon the symbiosis of three independent branches of government, but to simply align democratic intentions and parity between officials dully appointed or elected in the Commonwealth.  No one should be above the law, and while executive and legislative branches have continued to operate in the same continuum of rules and accountability set out in the original constitution, the judicial branch has not.  It's time for that to change.

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