‘Optics’ of Massachusetts Governor’s Nomination of Former Romantic Partner To State’s Highest Court Surfaces At Confirmation Hearing, But No Hard Questions

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A nominee for the state’s highest court got only one question about being the former romantic partner of Governor Maura Healey during a hearing before the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on Wednesday.

No one directly asked Gabrielle Wolohojian, 63, who has been a member of the Massachusetts Appeals Court for 16 years, about her long domestic partnership with the governor. Two mentioned what they called the “optics” of the nomination.

One was Terrence Kennedy (D-Lynnfield), who said:  “Now, I received countless phone calls and emails about you that the vast majority of them were favorable. There was a few that were concerned about the optics of the nomination, but not about your qualifications. Nobody said that.”

He asked no questions about the optics.

The only councilor who did was Tara Jacobs (D-North Adams), who said she heard from judges, lawyers, legislators, and others addressing what she called “the context of your nomination and the elephant in the room that hasn’t been much addressed,” which she described as “the appearance.”

“And it’s an open question of what — appearance of impropriety, appearance of conflict of interest, appearance of favoritism or –,” Jacob said. “But there’s optics here, and it’s troubled me, and it’s been reflected from others, and having said that I have, I have truly struggled with it.”

Jacobs said she has “spent an inordinate amount of time reading and talking to people to gain more information,” though she said she did not find a directly analogous example or ethical standard.

“… I’ve done everything I can to remain open-minded and objective in the pursuit of this information. So I haven’t come to any determinations about it. I’ve literally just been in the struggle of it, of thinking it through,” Jacobs said. “But the optics matter to me because, you know, there’s the perception of our courts being – having integrity, having trust in our courts.”

Jacobs also asked about the process Wolohojian went through to get the nomination from Healey, wondering if it was fair to other candidates.

“And was there an equal opportunity across the board for those who weren’t in, you know, what could be called a deep insider to get the nomination?” Jacobs said. “We talked, you and I talked about the recusal question and I wonder if the recusal question ever could pose a challenge at the court, whereas an otherwise split decision, if you were to recuse yourself, might end up with tied, and an injustice happen because you weren’t participating in a ruling. And I really wanted to ask the governor some of these questions just about the process that she went through in evaluating her decision making, how many people were at the table, was there diversity of opinion? My external perception, it feels a little like there was some groupthink happening with a lack of diversity at the table to signal that this is worth thinking about. Maybe that’s not fair and maybe that happened, but I wanted to ask her a lot of these questions.”

Wolohojian said she has gone through the judicial application process four times – once when Mitt Romney was governor, for an Appeals Court slot she didn’t get; once when Deval Patrick was governor, for an Appeals Court slot she got; once when Charlie Baker was governor, for a Supreme Judicial Court slot she didn’t get; and the current situation as Maura Healey’s nominee for the Supreme Judicial Court. She said each time the process was essentially the same.

“And this time, essentially, that entire process has happened again. So I understand your concern about the optics, but sitting from my chair, I have done everything like every other candidate, and I don’t know what else I can do, other than do the process that’s been really in place since the Dukakis administration. So I hope that helps in some ways address your question,” Wolohojian said.

Jacobs, who was the only member of the Governor’s Council who did not say or imply she would vote for Wolohojian, said after Wolohojian addressed the optics:  “Now I appreciate the extra information about it, and again I will say I am still in a place where it is not a clear reason to vote one way or the other it’s just an area that is troubling, is troubling to me.”

One question that has come up since Healey nominated Wolohojian is whether Wolohojian would have to withdraw from hearing a case involving the governor’s administration because of an appearance of a conflict of interest or an appearance of impropriety. The governor has said that’s not the case.

No member of the Governor’s Council asked Wolohojian that question.  But Marilyn Devaney (D-Watertown) asked Wolohojian about recusal more generally.

“So, you know, different people have reason to not to be able to vote on certain issues or whatever. Do you see any of that?” Devaney asked. “… Some people, when they go to these different courts, I’ve seen that they recuse themselves on different issues. Is there any matter that would ever come up do you think that you would have to do that?

Wolohojian responded:

“Well, there certainly could be. Recusal is something that I take very seriously. It’s a two-sided question. There are cases in which you need to recuse yourself, and you do so. And then there are cases where you don’t recuse yourself, and you don’t do so. That is a case-by-case analysis. Every judge does it for every case. I do it now for every case. I will continue to do that for every case. You look at the circumstances of the case, and you determine whether or not there’s a need to recuse. I want to add here that I think for those of us who are judges and lawyers, we understand that there’s a danger in over-recusal as well as a danger in under-recusal. You’re trying to get recusal right. And that you can only do by looking at each case individually, I have absolutely no interest, and never have, in sitting on cases I shouldn’t sit on or not sitting in cases.”

The Massachusetts Republican Party reiterated its past criticism of the nomination of Wolohojian.

“’Regardless of whether the judge opts to recuse herself from issues involving the governor or the executive branch, the impropriety of this nomination remains unchanged,” Amy Carnivale, chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said in a written statement Wednesday.

According to news accounts, Wolohojian and Healey became romantic partners around 2007, while both were working as lawyers at Hale and Dorr. They lived together for more than a decade in Charlestown. Healey declared the condominium they shared as her campaign headquarters when she successfully ran for state attorney general in 2014 and 2018. The two broke up during Healey’s second term as attorney general, before she ran for governor.

Wolohojian did not address her relationship with Healey.

Healey did, briefly, while introducing Wolohojian and after recounting Wolohojian’s qualities.

“And I know that personally. As I have said in the past, a personal relationship — and my personal relationship — with Judge Wolohojian should not deprive the people of Massachusetts of an outstanding SJC justice,” Healey said.

Wolohojian majored in English at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She also got a doctorate in English at Oxford University in England. She graduated from Columbia Law School.

After law school, she served as a law clerk in federal courts, for U.S. District Court Rya Zobel and for Judge Bailey Aldrich of the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

She went to work as an associate at Hale and Dorr, a Boston law firm now known as WilmerHale, in 1991.

From 1994 to 1995 she served as associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation of then-President Bill Clinton. During her testimony on Wednesday, Wolohojian praised the first head of the Whitewater investigation, Robert Fiske, but she did not mention the second head, Kenneth Starr, who in 1998 produced the then-famous Monica Lewinsky report, about three years after Wolohojian left the investigation.

Wolohojian returned to Hale and Dorr. She made partner in 1997. She joined the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which is the state’s second highest court, in 2008.

Wolohojian said that as a lawyer she discerned a difference in quality among judges.

“And I also learned what it means to appear before good judges, and those who aren’t so good. I learned how a good judge helps the lawyers achieve the best results that can be achieved, never standing in the way, or putting their finger on the scale, or making the courtroom about themselves. A good judge listens. A good judge is fair. A good judge is prepared. And I learned that when you walk away from a good judge’s courtroom, your confidence in the justice system is renewed, even if you lost your cause on that particular day,” Wolohojian said.

Since becoming a judge, Wolohojian said, she has been mindful of the high standard she has for judges.

“I have approached every day since then with an eye towards being the kind of judge I wanted to appear before when I was a lawyer. It has been my goal to try to engage the lawyers and my fellow judges in a joint effort aimed at getting to the right answer,” Wolohojian said. “I like to think that the right answer can always be found if you work hard enough to find it. But to do that, you must set aside your preconceptions, you must approach the law honestly and openly, you must listen to the litigants with respect and patience, and you must humbly do your homework by delving into the record, researching the law, and mastering the facts. You must listen to the views of your colleagues, and you must test your thinking against theirs. And once all of that is finished, you must measure your conclusion against your sense of fairness and justice. I try to write decisions that are clear, succinct, and written in language that lay people can understand.”

Wolohojian’s mother attended the hearing. During her testimony, Wolohojian began her personal history with law school, and did not mention her upbringing.

She is Armenian. She said her grandparents fled Istanbul during the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which occurred under the Ottoman Empire.

Her father, Albert Wolohojian, a professor French language and literature at Rutgers, died at age 61 in Paris in January 1991 while leading a group of students on a tour of France, according to a news story at the time.

On Wednesday, all of the members of the Governor’s Council praised Wolohojian’s work as a lawyer and a judge. Almost all said they plan to vote to confirm her when the Governor’s Council votes on the nomination in a week or two.

The Governor’s Council has the power to confirm or reject nominations to judgeships of the governor, but almost always confirms them.

Gabrielle Wolohojian, sitting in the audience with glasses, watches her former domestic partner Maura Healey, now the governor of Massachusetts, introduce her to the state’s Governor’s Council near the start of a confirmation hearing for her nomination to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday, February 21, 2024. State House News Service photo by Sam Doran.


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