Dan Lawlor: No Favors, Just the Facts for Magistrate Appointments
Monday, March 04, 2013
What is a magistrate?
The short, imperfect answer is an almost judge appointed with approval of the State Senate to serve in the State Courts. The coy answer is an alumni of the General Assembly.
Following a series of court scandals in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the General Assembly created stricter criteria for formal appointment as a judge. Alongside the stricter guidelines for formal judicial appointment, the GA has expanded the number of appointments for Assembly-approved near-judges: Magistrates. These jobs are 10-year appointments, with salaries in excess of $100,000.
Among their legal and political experience, one qualification that magistrates appear to have in common is close connection to the inner political leadership at the State House.
As previously mentioned, current court magistrates include Patricia Harwood, wife of former Speaker of the House John Harwood, John Flynn, the former legal Counsel for Gordon Fox, Patrick Burke, a former public defender and assistant to former House Speaker William Murphy, and Joseph Montalbano, former Senate President, among other former elected officials.
These 10-year appointments should not be taken lightly. Over a decade, we as state will invest over $1 million dollars to each of these politically-connected individuals and their families.
Given the struggles of community centers to pay benefits and improve staff, the challenges facing drug abusers and addicts, the need for job training and public transit, not to mention the need for more public defenders, are these multi-million dollar investments in magistrates worth it?
A great Katherine Gregg piece on former Senate President Joseph Montalbano's 2011 appointment as magistrate reads, "At Montalbano's side, applauding enthusiastically were his predecessor as Senate president, William V. Irons, former Senate Finance Chairman Stephen Alves and former Senators John McBurney, John Sabatini, who landed a spot as administrator of the Workers Compensation Court after he left the Senate, and David Cruise, now a state Traffic Court magistrate."
Since Montalbano's appointment, former Senator McBurney has become a magistrate himself.
None of this is written to impinge the character of the people involved, it simply raises a basic question: If the role of a magistrate is necessary for the state's courts, why don't magistrates go through the same vetting process that actual judges do?
Last session, Speaker Fox and President Paiva Weed made a bold step for government reform by passing the TIPS legislation—requiring major financial donors to reveal themselves in political advertising. This was a great success for the legislature, and one that, in a much smaller way, echoed the judicial reform work of the 1990s to improve transparency and accountability of the judiciary. The magistrate appointment process side-steps the normal, reformed if imperfect, process for judicial selection. Speaker Fox and President Paiva Weed have a chance to build on last year's good government work.
Representatives Walsh, Marcello, Valencia, Azzinaro, and Ajello have introduced legislation—H 5022—which would give the governor the sole authority to nominate, on the basis of merit, all judges and magistrates, based on a list provided by the Judicial Nominating Commission.
Just as the public should know who's who in regards to giving cash to campaigns, the public should know who's who and be informed on judicial nominees. As former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” It's time to treat magistrate appointments like any other judgeship. No favors - just the facts.
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