Mandatory Racism Training for Judges, Says Baker Nominee To Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

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By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

Massachusetts Appeals Court Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt, who is endeavoring to become the first Latinx woman to sit on the Supreme Judicial Court, said Wednesday that she would support mandatory racism training for all judges in Massachusetts as she faced questions about systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Wendlandt, who is a first-generation Colombian American, would add to the diversity of a court that is undergoing a significant makeover following the death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants, who first requested that Harvard University study racial disparities in the courts.

That study found significantly higher rates of incarceration in communities of color.

“My own view is it was not surprising to see the data support my own anecdotal views of the criminal justice system, not just in Massachusetts but throughout our country and the I think the dialogue of racial innocence is wrong. People think racism is something that happens in the South, and it is, but it also happens right here in our own commonwealth and it needs to stop,” Wendlandt said.

Wendlandt, 51, was born in New Orleans. She graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before attending Stanford University Law School.

Baker first appointed Wendlandt to the bench in 2017, selecting her for the Appeals Court seat that opened with Justice Elspeth Cypher’s elevation to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court.

“Justice Wendlandt is one of those people who brings a tremendous amount of intellectual horsepower, kindness and grace and a real appreciation for the complexities of the law and the simple notion of justice to the work that she does,” Baker said Wednesday, November 18, introducing his nominee to the Governor’s Council.

Wendlandt, in her opening remarks, said that she used to identify as a lawyer who fought hard to protect her clients from “pirates” threatening to steal their intellectual property and won. But over the past several years, she said she began to understand that her personal story resonated with people.

Wendlandt’s is the story of a woman who was born to parents who left Colombia for America “sight unseen” and built a life here. English is her second language. She’s a woman engineer, a lawyer, a judge, and a mother and wife who has to balance her family with her professional responsibilities.

“I say this in no sense to brag because I would be the first to tell you I am the product of a lot of luck, a lot of help from mentors, from parents, family and friends,” Wendlandt said.

“Identity is important and yo soy Latina,” she added.

Councilor Marilyn Devaney told her, “You’re not here because of your ethnicity. You earned it the old-fashioned way.”

The idea of becoming a barrier-breaking justice on the state’s highest court, however, is not why she said she applied to become an associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

“I do not want this job because I am Latina. I applied for this position because, like Martin Luther King Jr. said, the time is always right to do what is right,” Wendlandt said.

Wendlandt, who was unanimously approved by the council for her Appeals Court post in 2017, said she believes she could be helpful to newly confirmed Chief Justice Kimberly Budd, who takes over a court system in the midst of a global pandemic that has changed the way proceedings are conducted and justice is accessed.

“We face, as you all know, a global pandemic and call to end decades, no centuries, of racial injustice and I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I offer a consistent, rational and compassionate perspective to the chief,” Wendlandt said.

She also said her background in engineering and private practice experience at Ropes and Gray with complex intellectual property rights cases could help replace some of the civil litigation expertise that will be leaving the court when Justice Barbara Lenk retires in December.

“With all the innovation, technology and economic boom that is crowding in on my old stomping grounds at MIT and throughout the commonwealth, we need a jurisprudence that gives those companies the assurance that the complex nature of their disputes can be settled here by our more-than-capable jurists,” she said.

Over the course of several hours beginning Wednesday morning, Wendlandt fielded questions about mortgage and foreclosure discrimination, patent law, the probation system, and mandatory minimum sentencing.

She is widely expected to be confirmed as soon as next week, and Councilor Joseph Ferreira said directly he would be one of the votes in support

“You have it all going, as they say. You’re one of the most remarkable nominees I’ve ever seen here in my short six years here,” Ferreira said.

Baker said that during the process that led to Wendlandt’s nomination he found it “overwhelming” at times to hear her colleagues and lawyers who have practiced in front of Wendlandt talk about their high regard for the judge.

When Councilor Devaney asked what would be the most outstanding quality Wendlandt would bring to the Supreme Judicial Court, Wendlandt’s colleague on the Appeals Court bench Ariane Vuono didn’t hesitate.

“Her intellect. She’s one of the smartest people I know,” Vuono told Devaney

Vuono, who said it would be “bittersweet” to lose Wendlandt as a colleague, said in her 15 years on the Appeals Court bench she has seen many exceptional judges confirmed.

“I can say unequivocally that Justice Wendlandt is one of the best of the best,” Vuono said.

Probate and Family Court Chief Justice John Casey and former Ropes and Gray colleague Joan Lukey were also among the lawyers and judges offered their support for Wendlandt’s nomination.

Lukey said her judgment and her intellect “are beyond question,” but said that in addition to being the go-to person at the firm for intellectual property law she was also known for her “generosity of spirit.”

“She excelled as a lawyer, yes, But she excelled even more as a person,” she said.

If Wendlandt is confirmed, she would join Budd and Elspeth Cypher as one of three women on the seven-member Supreme Judicial Court and one of three justices of color, along with Budd and new nominee Serge Georges Jr.

Baker this week nominated Georges, a Boston Municipal Court judge Serge Georges Jr., to the top court, which would make the son of Haitian immigrants one of the very few district courts judges to make the leap to the Supreme Judicial Court.