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Roderick Ireland, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice nominee, praises hometown Springfield at introduction

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by Dan Ring, The Republican

Gov. Deval L. Patrick on Thursday nominated Springfield native Roderick L. Ireland to be chief justice of the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, setting the stage for him to become the first black to lead the court.

Patrick praised Ireland for being “absolutely committed to the fair administration of justice.” Patrick said Ireland is known for “his wisdom and genuine concern for each and every litigant” involved in court disputes.

Ireland, 65, said that his nomination is a great opportunity for him to continue a career in public service.

“My nomination says that anything is possible, no matter where you come from and what your background is,” Ireland said at a Statehouse press conference. “I’m proud to say I’m from the great city of Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield is where I learned about hard work and about education.”

Ireland, the son of a former school teacher and painting contractor, was a judge on the Boston Juvenile Court for 13 years and then an associate justice on the state Appeals Court from 1990 to 1997.

Former Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, appointed Ireland as the first black associate justice on the court in 1997, breaking a color barrier on the 320-year-old institution.

The chief justice post was held by a Springfield resident more than 140 years ago when Reuben Atwater Chapman took office in 1868.

In July, Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall announced plans to retire, saying she wanted to spend more time with her husband, Anthony Lewis. Lewis, a retired New York Times columnist, has Parkinson’s disease.

The Governor’s Council would need to confirm Ireland’s nomination.

Governor’s Councilor Thomas T. Merrigan, of Greenfield, said he expects that Ireland will be confirmed in December following a public interview with the council.

Merrigan, a former Orange District Court judge for 12 years, said Ireland possesses a broad understanding of the judicial branch and an unparalleled background.

“It’s a terrific nomination for a lot of reasons,” Merrigan said. “I’m very happy with it.”

Ireland, who lives in Milton, talked about how last week he spoke with students at the William N. DeBerry Elementary School in Springfield, which he attended while growing up in the city’s Old Hill neighborhood.

His mother, Helen, 93, attended the event at the school.

Ireland said he often talks with young people about the importance of education.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who have helped me along the way at every point in my career,” Ireland said.

Ireland is the most senior associate justice on the high court, which was established in 1692.

Called “Rick” by his friends, Ireland graduated from Classical High School in Springfield in 1962, received a bachelor’s degree in 1966 from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and a law degree from Columbia University in 1969.

Ireland started his career as a public defender in Boston and later worked as general counsel for the state Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

Ireland was with the majority when the state Supreme Judicial Court in a 4-3 landmark decision legalized gay marriage in 2003.

Of all the court members, Ireland may be the strongest on gay rights. In 2006, he broke with other members on the SJC when it upheld former Gov. W. Mitt Romney’s use of a 1913 law to ban same-sex couples from other states from marrying in Massachusetts.

Under the 1913 law, Romney had said, nonresidents could not marry here if their union would be banned in their home state and they have no intention of moving to Massachusetts.

As the lone dissenter in the ruling, Ireland said that it was “fundamentally unfair” for the state to resurrect and selectively enforce “a moribund statute” that was dormant for almost a century. Critics said the 1913 law was originally enacted to block interracial marriages.

Patrick and state legislators in 2008 repealed the old law.

A sample of opinions written by Ireland shows that he strives to let “the law dictate where you go” as he said on Thursday.

For example, Ireland and former Associate Justice John M. Greaney, of Westfield, were the only two dissenters when the court in 2005 ruled 5-2 in favor of the state Board of Education in a lawsuit by families of students in 19 school districts. The suit charged the state was shortchanging poorer districts and needed to change the way it is financing schools.

In an opinion, Ireland wrote that he is concerned with problems in poorer school districts such as Brockton, Lowell, Springfield and Winchendon. Ireland said that partly because of state cuts in education, there is “a bleak picture” for those four districts.

In 2007, Ireland wrote an opinion that granted a new trial to a former Springfield man who was serving a life sentence on a conviction for a murder in 1993.

The court said the man, Frederick Murphy, was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors violated his rights when they used a jailhouse informant to pry incriminating statements from Murphy.

Ireland wrote that the informant was a government agent because he had signed an agreement with federal prosecutors that could provide him a lighter sentence in exchange for his help on investigations.

Prosecutors should have gone through Murphy’s lawyer before using a police agent to question him, Ireland wrote. In a violation of the state and federal Constitutions, Murphy was not informed of his right to consult with his lawyer before he spoke with the informant, the decision said.

Murphy eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to the time he had served.

John M. Thompson, of Springfield, an appellate lawyer for criminal defendants, said Ireland knows the judicial system inside and out at all levels, which is valuable background for a chief justice, he said.

“He’s a hard worker,” said Thompson, who was lawyer for Murphy in front of the court. “He writes clear rulings. I don’t always agree with them but he is a conscientious judge. He is skilled at what he does.”

Two years ago, Ireland authored a high-profile decision by the high court that said a Rastafarian man is entitled to a trial on possible religious discrimination for refusing to cut his hair or beard to comply with Jiffy Lube’s policy on grooming.

Ireland wrote that under state law, an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious needs unless there is an “undue hardship” on the company. The company failed to prove that it would suffer an undue hardship, Ireland wrote.


Written by Symphony

November 10, 2010 at 9:50 am

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