Cordy moving from high court to former law firm

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STATE HOUSE — Robert Cordy, whose last day as a member of the Supreme Judicial Court was Friday, will return to his former law firm, McDermott, Will & Emery, in October.

After 15-plus years on the bench, Cordy plans to practice the same type of civil and criminal litigation that comprised his portfolio earlier, along with “corporate problem-solving,” which he said is a “love” of his.

“I know the firm very well,” Cordy told the News Service. He said, “For me it’s just the right place to go.”

The former chief legal counsel to Gov. William Weld, Cordy, at 67, gave up his seat on the state’s highest court three years ahead of the mandatory retirement age.

Cordy said his decision to retire this year, which coincided with the departures of Francis Spina and Fernande Duffly from the high court, was “not at all” connected to who is occupying the Corner Office – Gov. Charlie Baker, a former cabinet secretary in the Weld administration. As governor, Baker is tasked with nominating attorneys to the fill judicial vacancies. The three Superior Court judges Baker nominated for the high court – Kimberly Budd, David Lowy and Frank Gaziano – were all unanimously confirmed.

Cordy said he is “very pleased” with each of Baker’s choices for the SJC, calling them all “intelligent, hardworking and courageous.”

In January 2001 Cordy went directly from managing partner at McDermott, Will & Emery’s Boston office to a seat on the seven-person court that is the ultimate arbiter of state legal disputes and criminal cases. Unlike Baker’s three nominees, Cordy has never presided over a trial courtroom, wearing the robe only as a justice of the highest court in the Commonwealth. The North Reading resident said in the next phase of his career he might appear in federal court as a litigant.

In the 1970s, Scott Harshbarger recruited Cordy out of Harvard Law School to work for the Massachusetts Defenders Committee, and in February 1979, Harshbarger invited Cordy to serve as associate general counsel at the newly created Ethics Commission, according to Cordy’s judicial application. Nineteen years later – while Cordy was back in private practice – Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci beat Attorney General Harshbarger, a Democrat, for the governorship. Two years after that, Cellucci nominated Cordy to replace Ruth Abrams on the SJC.

Starting in 1982, Cordy worked on public corruption cases as a federal prosecutor for Weld, then the Reagan-appointed U.S. Attorney, and in 1991, Cordy followed Weld into the governor’s office, serving for two years as the lawyer who oversees the judicial nominating process, among other legal responsibilities.

Cordy left the governor’s office to work for McDermott, Will & Emery – the firm Weld later joined after stepping down as the state’s chief executive in a failed bid for U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Cordy was wired-in to the state power center even after leaving state employ in 1993, serving as chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission from October 1997 to September 1999.

Asked Friday whether he was a Republican during his service in the Weld administration, Cordy said, “I’m really trying to remember.”

Weld is now setting aside a legal and lobbying career at Mintz Levin to pursue a potentially quixotic White House run as the vice presidential nominee for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson – the former Republican governor of New Mexico. Both aim to tap into Republicans and Democrats disaffected by the major party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“It’s a funny race this year in every respect,” said Cordy, who said for members of the high court, “politics is just something we don’t have to worry about.”

Cordy said he has stayed in touch with Weld and has the “highest regard for him,” praising his grasp of the issues and ability to “deal candidly with people.”

During his tenure at Pemberton Square, the Supreme Judicial Court made history – and set a precedent followed by the U.S. Supreme Court a dozen years later – when in 2003 it cited John Adams’s constitution in legalizing same-sex marriage. More recent rulings have limited penalties for juvenile killers, faulted the state for failing to meet its own greenhouse gas reduction targets, and briefly legalized surreptitious, invasive photography – ruling state statute had not specifically criminalized those acts.

Estimating he had heard 3,000 full cases and wrote 350 opinions, Cordy said no one case stands out above all the others for him and there are no opinions that he regrets writing.

A North Reading resident for three decades, Cordy was born in Manchester, Conn. and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1971, according to his application. In a career that has so far also included stops at the Department of Revenue and the firm Burns & Levinson, Cordy had more humbling beginnings, working as a bus boy at the Rusty Scupper Restaurant in Boston while attending law school, his application reports.

Cordy’s career has had other twists.

Describing it as the “biggest surprise of my life,” Cordy has devoted considerable attention to trying to build up the judiciaries and bar associations in countries around the world, working with judges from the former Soviet state Uzbekistan, the war-ravaged former Soviet adversary Afghanistan, Russia, Turkey, Kosovo and America’s southern neighbor, Mexico.

“I intend to continue to do that to the extent I’m asked to,” Cordy said. He said the experience has impressed on him the “fragility of an independent judiciary,” and said there is an “interdependence between free press and an independent judiciary.”

“That is just so apparent that both of those institutions need to be functioning well,” said Cordy, who said intimidation and undermining of a free press tends to precede the dismantling of an independent judiciary.

Cordy said Friday he planned to spend his last day cleaning his office and plans to travel before joining the firm, which counts clients on six continents and offices throughout North America, Europe and east Asia.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service