Maura Healey’s New Appointment Maxes Out Dems On Massachusetts State Ballot Law Commission

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By Sam Doran
State House News Service

The season has arrived when political candidates may see their ballot access challenged ahead of this fall’s elections, and with a fresh appointment from Governor Maura Healey, the panel that would rule on those complaints is again able to conduct business, though the State Ballot Law Commission remains starved for members.

Healey’s office late Monday told State House News Service that the governor recently tapped a new chairman for the State Ballot Law Commission:  Ernest Sarason, a retired judge, whose one-year term began last Sunday, May 5. All three of the commission’s members are now Democrats.

Since March, the State Ballot Law Commission had been unable to meet or consider potential challenges to candidate eligibility because it did not have enough members to make a quorum — and beyond that, there was no one to chair the panel.

Healey holds the appointing authority to fill the two remaining vacancies on the five-seat board; Healey administration communications director Jillian Fennimore said Monday, May 13 that “we are working expeditiously to fill the remaining vacancies.”

Under state law, the governor must fill vacancies within 60 days of when they arise. At least two seats have been vacant for months. The commission was operating with a three-man roster in January, when it tossed a challenge to former President Donald Trump’s ballot eligibility ahead of Super Tuesday.

One of those three members, retired Judge Francis Crimmins Jr., resigned from the panel shortly after the Trump case was decided, around the same time he pulled nomination papers of his own to run for the Massachusetts Governor’s Council in District 2.

“I was a holdover. My term had already expired, and I kept waiting for them to appoint somebody,” Crimmins told State House News Service on Monday. He added that he “gave everyone plenty of warning” but did not want to file nomination papers while still maintaining membership on the State Ballot Law Commission.

The five-member State Ballot Law Commission must include a retired judge who has served on either the state’s District Court, Superior Court, Appeals Court, or Supreme Judicial Court. State law automatically designates the retired judge — now Sarason — as the panel’s chairman.

Sarason worked in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office for nearly two decades, ultimately as chief of the Trial Division in the Government Bureau, before he was nominated to the Boston Municipal Court bench by Governor Mitt Romney in 2006, according to State House News Service coverage from the time.

The Governor’s Council confirmed Sarason, 5-0, with just a couple weeks left in Romney’s term. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, Sarason worked early in his career for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.

The State Ballot Law Commission’s membership now consists of three Democrats, meaning Healey cannot pick any more members from her own party’s ranks. Sarason is a Democrat, according to Healey’s office, as are the two other current commissioners, Westwood attorney Joseph Eisenstadt and former state senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop.

The panel’s enabling statute (Chapter 55B) mandates that the commission cannot exceed three members of the same political party.  Crimmins, who was an appointee of Governor Charlie Baker, is a Republican.

“The role of the Ballot Law Commission, in any state, is very important,” said Crimmins, former first justice of Stoughton District Court, who served on the bench from 1992 to 2010. ” … Most of the time, the members of the commission toil with that important work in oblivion, and every now and then there’s a high profile matter. But it’s certainly important to have the forum that provides checks and balances to other parts of the legislative machinery for ballot access that Chapter 55 describes. And we need people on that commission.”

The commission often sees work come its way in June (after nomination signatures are submitted, ahead of when fall primary ballots are printed) or in September (ahead of general election ballots going to the printers).

“We will have made all appointments to the commission well before any cases come in,” Fennimore said.

The State Ballot Law Commission ruled in June 2020 that Congressional candidate Helen Brady was ineligible for the Republican primary ballot. (The Supreme Judicial Court overruled the State Ballot Law Commission in July of that year.)

In September 2016, it booted a Plymouth County Commission candidate, Republican Tony O’Brien, from the general election ballot. That happened after two other candidates challenged his claim that he lived in the town of Whitman.

Members of the commission serve two-year terms, counted from February in the year they are appointed, with the exception of the retired judge who serves a one-year term. A governor can reappoint current members indefinitely.

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