Massachusetts Should Start Shedding Judges

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West Virginia legislators are trying to remove all the current justices of the state supreme court for lavish spending and for overpaying senior judges in violation of state law.

One of them has already been suspended in connected with a federal investigation. (Among other things, he bought a $32,000 couch for his office with state money.) One of the others put track lighting on his office floor at public expense. Another announced her resignation last month rather than face a trial in the state Senate, which can still remove her erstwhile colleagues.)

None of the stated grounds for impeaching has to do with court decisions. But the gist of the charges against them is that these people abused their power and their public trust.

Misusing public funds is an example abusing public trust. Even more to the point, though, is failing to protect the public in obvious situations.

We have plenty of such cases in Massachusetts, and yet no judges get removed. Even Thomas Estes, the judge who had sex with a court social worker in his chambers in the Belchertown district courthouse, wasn’t removed. He resigned in May (effective June 15, the date of his last paycheck) earlier this year after being suspended indefinitely by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Possibly legislators would have gotten around to removing him if he hadn’t resigned. Some of them sounded so inclined. But who knows?

Judge Timothy Feeley of Salem District Court still graces us with his presence. Feeley sentenced a Dominican convicted heroin dealer to probation in February partly because the defendant was just doing it to support his family and partly because he is an illegal alien and stood a better chance of getting deported if he had been sent to jail.

Add “of correction” to the following statement from the judge, taken from a court transcript, and you get the idea:

“If he was a citizen, I’d send him — I’d probably do house time — but I’d send him to the house. I would.”

So what has happened to Judge Feeley? Governor Charlie Baker criticized him. State Representative Jim Lyons (R-Andover) filed a petition in May (HD 4822) seeking to start the process to remove Feeley as a judge, and got several fellow Republicans to support it.

But there’s no evidence the matter is going any further.

Then there’s Judge Lisa Grant of Boston Municipal Court. She’s the one who sentenced a Guinea-Bissau national to 364 days in jail for two bank robberies in 2016, because sentencing him to a whopping full year would have triggered federal immigration authorities to deport him once he was released. The man got out early, and, according to police, in May 2017 killed a man and woman who lived in an apartment in a building in South Boston where he used to work as a security guard.

We predicted at the time that the case would trigger temporary outrage among public officials and then die down and likely lead to zero changes. One year four months later … that’s what has happened.

News stories on removal of judges sometimes describe the state’s process for removing judges as cumbersome. It isn’t.

There are two ways to do it. If both chambers of the state Legislature “address” the governor on the matter (which takes a majority vote in each chamber), the governor can remove the judge “with consent of” the Governor’s Council. (See Massachusetts Constitution, Part II, Chapter 3, Article 1.)

Or:  The Massachusetts House of Representatives can vote to impeach a judge, and the Massachusetts Senate can vote to remove the judge from office. It takes just a regular majority of members in each body to do it. (See Massachusetts Constitution, Part II, Chapter 1, Section 3, Article 6; and Part II, Chapter 1, Section 2, Article 8.)

The problem isn’t the process; it’s actually easier than in most states. In West Virginia, for instance, it will take a two-thirds vote to actually remove the state supreme court justices who have been impeached.

The problem is the willingness to use it. The last time Massachusetts removed a judge was November 7, 1973, when the Governor’s Council decided (at the behest of Governor Frank Sargent) that Judge Jerome P. Troy had abused his authority at Dorchester District Court.

Since then, judges have resigned under duress. But no one has gotten the heave-ho.

When Judge Feeley was dodging slings and arrows this past June, two lawyer-advocates released a statement claiming that removing Feeley would “set[] a dangerous precedent of bowing to an uninformed mob.”

That’s what the official ruling class in Massachusetts thinks of you, dear reader, if you think you don’t require the services of a judge who says he would sentence you to jail if you are a citizen … but sentenced an illegal alien to probation because he isn’t.