Three SJC judges sit for first cases, two recusals expected this week

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BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker’s influence on the Supreme Judicial Court was seen for the first time Tuesday as the court returned from its summer recess with three new justices hand-picked by Baker.

Justices Kimberly Budd, Frank Gaziano and David Lowy — plucked from the Superior Court ranks by Baker and confirmed by the Governor’s Council this summer — took their seats on the bench Tuesday morning as the SJC prepared to hear cases. But not until Thursday will the complete seven-judge court sit in full for a complete day of hearings.

The three justices mark the beginning of what is expected to be a substantial reshaping of the high court and its philosophy by Baker.

Budd, Gaziano and Lowy succeed retired justices Robert Cordy, Fernande Duffly and Francis Spina. And because two more SJC judges — Margot Botsford and Geraldine Hines — will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 during the Republican governor’s first term, he is guaranteed a chance to appoint the majority of the bench.

While Budd and Hines are on the SJC, the court will have an unprecedented two African-American women justices. Budd said during her confirmation hearing that her background would give her a “different perspective on the world.”

The rookie jurists were seated at the edges of the court’s dais Tuesday, with Lowy assigned to the seat on the far left of the court, and Gaziano and Budd situated in two seats furthest to the right in Courtroom One.

The state’s highest court on Tuesday heard arguments in an alimony case and two challenges to the validity of privatization contracts by the Department of Mental Health regarding delivery of mental health services before the court took its morning break.

All three justices were engaged in the proceedings, with Lowy and Gaziano each asking several questions of the lawyers arguing before them.

When the court returned to session, Gaziano became the first of the freshman justices to recuse himself, opting not to participate in a hearing related to a murder trial he presided over as a Superior Court judge in 2014.

Gaziano was the presiding judge in the case of Bryan Grassie, who in 2014 was convicted of second-degree murder, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon stemming from a confrontation with a pair of brothers at a high school graduation party. Grassie’s attorney argued Tuesday that his client’s conviction should be overturned because the jury was not given instructions about the legal significance of “the obvious mitigating factors in the case.”

Lowy is expected to recuse himself from a hearing scheduled for Wednesday related to the 2015 murder trial of Philip Chism, over which Lowy presided.

Chism was convicted in December of raping and murdering Colleen Ritzer, his 24-year-old math teacher at Danvers High School. Chism’s lawyers are challenging Lowy’s denial of a motion to impound video and a transcript of an interview in which Chism confessed to killing Ritzer.

Though Lowy denied the motion, the video and transcript have not been released to the public. The publishers of the Boston Globe, Salem News and Lawrence Eagle Tribune are asking the SJC to affirm Lowy’s original denial and make the documents public.

— Written by Colin A. Young

Copyright State House News Service