BBA Council Hears from the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel

Last week, we were happy to welcome back Lon Povich, Governor Charlie Baker’s Chief Legal Counsel and former member of the BBA Council and the Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid. On his annual visit to Council he provided an update on three key areas of interest to members of the Bar:  1) Criminal Justice Reform, 2) the Budget, and 3) the Judicial Nominating Process.

Criminal Justice Reform

Lon Povich first spoke on criminal justice reform, highlighting the recent report released by the Council of State Governments (CSG).  We’ve been following the report, and related legislation filed in February by the Governor, closely. Overall, the report and bill focus on reducing recidivism in the Commonwealth, which is currently at about 40%. The Governor’s Proposed Budget allocated $3.5 million to fund the costs of implementing the recommendations in the report for the first year.

With the reducing recidivism goal, the proposed reforms include increasing programming for incarcerated individuals, providing more training for corrections officers, expanding the availability of behavioral health services, increasing credit for “good time served”, allowing good time to apply to some mandatory minimum sentences, strengthening the coordination between prisons and the Parole Board, and improving data collection. Overall, Povich characterized the bill as a start to criminal justice reform, but he thought it would attack recidivism head on. One member of Council expressed concern that if the legislation coming from the CSG report is rushed through the legislative process, momentum will be lost for more sweeping reforms, including front-end reforms that many stakeholders believe important, like those related to bail, collateral consequences, and mandatory minimums. In response, Povich said he did not see the CSG bill as a barrier, but instead a starting point. The narrow nature of the current proposed legislation reflected what it took to gain consensus among the sponsors of the CSG project, the Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President and Chief Justice Gants, so he was worried if too many additional proposals were attached, it might not pass at all.

In addition to the above, Povich mentioned four other pieces of criminal justice legislation coming from the Governor’s Office this session. One relates to “fine time,” which is the practice of incarcerating individuals when they are unable to pay court fines and fees. The new bill would provide other options for defendants that cannot afford a fine and would provide counsel for indigent defendants facing fine time. The next bill would increase the penalty for assault and battery on police officers. The third bill would reform the current laws on the sharing of sexually explicit material, including “sexting” and “revenge porn.” The final piece of legislation he mentioned would update the wiretap statute, which was drafted in 1965, to account for modern technology and reform the types of crimes it covers. (Here at the BBA, we’ve also called for updates to the current wiretap laws.)

Budget Update

Next, Povich discussed the state budget, first noting that money is very tight right now, especially given the rising MassHealth costs. He spoke on funding for the Trial Court first, noting the 1% increase provided for in the Governor’s proposed budget as well as the inclusion of $11.7 million in the more recent House Ways and Means proposed budget to cover the pay raise legislation enacted since the Governor’s budget was released. He also mentioned the additional $1.5 million provided for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation (MLAC) in the House Ways and Means proposal. Finally, Povich noted that while the Governor’s budget allocated $1 million for expanding the jurisdiction of the Housing Court to the whole state, the House Ways and Means budget did not include any funding for this expansion. To wrap up his budget update, he discussed the rest of the budget process, which we’ve also covered in a podcast, and highlighted the significant impact BBA advocacy has on funding for the judiciary and civil legal aid.

To learn more about the funding of the Judiciary, civil legal aid, and statewide expansion of the Housing Court, check out our numerous updates on the budget!

Court Nominating Process

Finally, Lon Povich discussed court nominations under the Baker Administration, first noting that 53 judges had been appointed since the Governor took office. Around 33 vacancies remain in other courts, but nine are currently being scheduled for Governor’s Council hearings and six letters of nomination are about to be sent, so there are 18 positions for which nominees have not yet been identified. He called on the Council and the private bar to help in filling these vacancies by encouraging qualified attorneys to apply for these positions. He also highlighted that of the 53 new judges appointed during Governor Baker’s time in office, around 50% are women and around 20% are considered diverse, meaning they are members of racial or ethnic minority groups or members of the LGBTQ community.

In a follow-up question by a member of Council, Povich addressed whether the Governor’s Office would consider making the process to become a judge less arduous, in order to encourage more applications. Interestingly, when Povich previously addressed Council, it was on the heels of an Executive Order reforming the nominating process, which we outline in full here.  To summarize, the applications for judicial and clerk-magistrate positions are first reviewed by the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), a 21-member, statewide, non-partisan, non-compensated body currently chaired by former BBA president Paul Dacier and vice-chaired by former BBA Council member Roberto Braceras. Then, the Commissioner’s interview approved candidates and at least ½ of the Commissioners casting a vote amongst a quorum must agree to continue the application of the potential nominee. Following a period of thorough research and evaluation, a two-thirds vote is required for the JNC to forward an applicant’s name to the Governor’s Office to be considered for nomination. Typically, the JNC forwards between 3 and 6 potential nominees to the Governor’s Chief Legal Counsel, who then seeks input from the Joint Bar Committee (JBC). The JBC determines whether a candidate is well qualified, qualified, not qualified or there is insufficient information to evaluate the candidate. The JBC communicates its vote to the Governor’s office, and the Governor can nominate the applicant, deny the application, seek further commendation from the JNC, or re-open the application process.

In response to the question on whether the process could be simplified in order to encourage more applications, Povich responded by saying that he served on the JNC in both the Romney and Patrick administration who followed the same JNC process and that he believes the current three-step process is effective in ensuring that only top-quality candidates receive judgeships. Ultimately, he acknowledged the “triathlon” (JNC, Governor’s Office and Governor’s Council) that applicants must go through, but maintained that the work, by the applicants, the JNC, the JBC, and the Governor’s Office is all worth it to get the most qualified nominees.

With his earlier call in mind, if you’ve considered pursuing judgeship, or know someone who would make a great judge, now is the time to apply!

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association