Review Will Hold State Judges More Accountable
A lifetime sentence is the last verdict a courtroom defendant wants to hear. But for the presiding judge, it’s an invitation to interpret the law for as long as that person is physically and mentally able.
At least that’s how it works in the Massachusetts judicial system. Here judges -- appointed not elected -- can practice jurisprudence until the age of 70.
But for the few whose juris lacks prudence, it can lead to questionable, even outrageous rulings that pervert the law, and in extreme cases, cause tragic consequences.
That’s why a local lawmaker has again advocated legislation that calls for a review of our superior and district court judges’ performance every seven years. Rep. Tom Golden, D-Lowell, who has filed a similar bill six times previously without success, believes judicial oversight should be taken seriously.
Last December, for example, Gov. Charlie Baker asked the Massachusetts Trial Court to suspend Newton District Court Judge Shelley Richmond Joseph for allegedly helping an illegal alien fugitive escape from federal immigration authorities.
And there’s Salem Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley, whose string of controversial rulings include giving an admitted heroin dealer probation instead of jail time, because Feeley theorized the perp was just trying to provide for his family.
But Golden emphasized his bill goes beyond headline-grabbing actions of a few. “But this is not about a singular decision. This is about a track record of poor decisions,” Golden told the newspaper. “If an elected official continues to make poor decisions, there’s a remedy. In this situation, there isn’t.”
Golden’s bill calls for the Governor’s Council -- an elected body of eight members that provides advice and consent in certain matters, including judicial nominations -- to review judges every seven years. With the support of the majority of the council, judges would be eligible for reappointment until they retire.
Several other local legislators agree that the current judicial structure isn’t working, including Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg.
Tran said it’s unfortunate to discuss limiting judges’ terms when not all judges warrant a limit. But, he adds, there must be judicial accountability for those “who have become political activists instead of interpreting the laws.”
No surprise: The state’s judicial establishment unanimously opposes any review by politicians, believing they haven’t the credentials to render a qualified opinion.
They also believe such a system would compromise judges’ ability to act independently in accordance with their application of the law.
Operating with a virtual carte blanche provides no checks and balances over a judge’s conduct. We see Golden’s bill as a sensible remedy.
Most of us would relish the opportunity to pursue our line of work unimpeded for seven-year stretches.
But given the common-sense nature of Golden’s proposal, and the fact the Legislature contains more than its share of lawyers -- potential judges -- we don’t give this measure much chance of passage. We only hope it doesn’t take a string of tragic judicial decisions for lawmakers to finally act.