Deval Patrick strikes a town meeting tone at MBA co-sponsored breakfast

Issue July/August 2006 By Chad Konecky

Deval Patrick, the Democratic State Convention's endorsed gubernatorial candidate, sketched broad strokes of his policy agenda and tackled substantive legal minutia during a June 20 breakfast discussion at Suffolk University Law School.

The event, co-sponsored by the MBA and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, unfolded as a frank and relaxed hour-long forum. Moderated by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Publisher/Editor-in-Chief David L. Yas, the program was meant to feature a debate format, but both Independent candidate Christy P. Mihos and Democratic primary candidate Chris Gabrieli cancelled their scheduled appearances, citing scheduling conflicts.

"The organized bar continues to take a very active role in shaping Massachusetts politics and policy," said MBA General Counsel Martin W. Healy, who was instrumental in shepherding the forum from concept to reality.

"The forum was an excellent venue for the bar to be heard on a number of key issues," he said. "Arguably, no other officeholder has more of a direct impact on legal policy than that of governor. We have certainly seen that play out over the past few administrations."

Some of the approximately 120 attendees, including the 49-year-old Patrick, a former Clinton Administration civil rights official, adopted a light-hearted tone regarding the absence of Gabrieli and Mihos. Other gubernatorial candidates who were invited either did not respond or declined to attend.

During his introductory remarks, MBA President-elect Mark D. Mason went on to suggest that perhaps Mihos and Gabrieli "didn't realize breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

Patrick, who hopes to defeat Gabrieli and Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly in the Sept. 19 Democratic gubernatorial primary, added, "One candidate standing is exactly what we want this to look like in a few months."

Once the program was underway, Patrick deftly fielded moderator and audience-member questions covering a broad range of topics in politics and law.

The Chicago native and Milton resident received particularly effusive applause for his answer when Yas solicited Patrick's stance on gay marriage, an issue that has kept Massachusetts in the national spotlight since the Supreme Judicial Court's landmark ruling in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health in May 2004.

"I think the SJC got it right, and frankly, I think people are ready to move on," said Patrick, noting that marriage between blacks and whites became legal during his lifetime (via a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision). "The sky hasn't fallen and the ground hasn't opened up. I've been married 22 years and there's nothing threatening to my marriage about gay marriage.

"The problem is, leaders don't always lead us to higher ground," he continued. "Some lead us to issues that are divisive because they are divisive and that's the kind of leadership that has to change and will change when I'm governor."

Patrick was careful to concede that the SJC ruling remains a political lighting rod.

"Those issues of hearts and minds still have to be resolved, but the issues of law have been settled," he said.

A love of law
In response to an audience member who raised the issue of cuts in legal services for the poor by the Romney Administration, Patrick spoke passionately about the accessibility of courts to "poor and vulnerable people." While Patrick cautioned that "not every appropriation" must be supported by a governor and maintained that legal services have "limitations on a civil level," the former NAACP attorney served notice that certain entitlements would regain priority status in his administration.

"We are about the rule of law and the courts can't be the exclusive province of the well-funded and the well-connected," said Patrick, who served as president of the Legal Aid Bureau at Harvard Law School before graduating in 1982. "The law ought to reflect our basic sense of justice. For the all the emphasis on logic in legal training, logic never found its way to justice on its own. Never. It has always required advocates and judges who have a sense of moral values.

"It is wrong," he continued, "to have a legal system where the only participants who can resolve their disputes are people who have money."

Patrick was equally candid when talk turned to the unfavorable public perception of lawyers and the legal field. Calling for more vigilant self-policing of unethical behavior in the profession, Patrick labeled negative generalizations about lawyers' as "unjustified," but attributed the legal field's reputation to "certain excesses" of "dishonest individuals."

"I'm very proud to be an attorney," added Patrick. "I've practiced in many areas. Helping poor families and big corporations. I've argued in the Supreme Court. I've consulted for companies and nations. I love the law. But the notion of government by the rule of law has become a cliché in this country."

The bulk of his comments in the legal arena revolved around issues relating to judges and judgeships.

Patrick enthusiastically supports the notion of returning an authoritative function to the role of the commonwealth's Judicial Nominating Committee, as opposed to the JNC serving in more of an advisory capacity, as has been the case in recent years.

Contending that many citizens around the state "feel like Beacon Hill is all about Beacon Hill," Patrick pledged to instruct the JNC under his administration to "cast the net as broadly as possible in search of racial, ethnic, gender and geographic diversity" in identifying candidates for judgeships. He also vowed that he would insist JNC panels themselves be diverse in their membership and in committee-member representation by region.

"Would I change the role of the JNC (to be more authoritative)? Yes, and I will do so eagerly," said Patrick, an advisor to the post-apartheid South African government during the drafting of its civil rights laws. "There's no way to do all that I want to do as governor without leveraging the role and getting help, and that's what the JNC used to be about. I want the JNC to give me recommendations based upon the framework I give them."

"One of us"
Addressing a succession of politically charged subjects relevant to the legal profession, Patrick touched upon key issues, including: elected judgeships ("I would not support such a system in any circumstance"); the death penalty ("I oppose it"), enhanced judicial stewardship of court system resources ("I do think you want the judiciary to have more control over management of their resources"); the state Medical Malpractice Tribunal ("a very good idea"); Administrative Law Judge panels ("Having citizens help me vet, cull through and recommend ALJs is a natural and wonderful way to involve people in their government"); and, law school loan forgiveness for those involved in public service ("I love the idea").

Patrick, who won his party's official endorsement at the 2006 Democratic State Convention on June 4, commented in detail on three additional items relating to judges and the judiciary.

Asked by Yas whether, in the hypothetical, he would publicly criticize a judge's verdict, Patrick took the bait, then threw the proverbial hook.

"Maybe," said Patrick, who was serving as general counsel to the Coca-Cola Company when former Superior Court Associate Justice Maria I. Lopez was making national headlines in 2000. "I think judges will know more about a set of circumstances than a governor is likely to know. Sometimes, in terms of sentencing, the disposition is shorter than the set of circumstances would seem to dictate or there will be a continuance without a finding that does warrant a public complaint from the governor. But you can expect me to be reluctant to do so."

On the subject of mandatory sentencing, Patrick explained:

"I support mandatory sentencing, but I do believe you have to allow room for judgment," he said. "The problem is not the concept; the issue is what constitutes a reasonable minimum."

Patrick made it clear that he is open to the creation of specialized courts devoted to select case activity, like drug or gun-charge courts. But once again, the candidate positioned himself with balance and in a manner that underscored why Yas opened the event by reminding the assemblage that Patrick is "one of us."

"I think specialized courts are a good idea until we overspecialize, so you have to ask yourself where that point is," said Patrick, who, according to a June 19 poll conducted by CBS4, is locked in a statistical dead heat in his battle for the party's nomination with Gabrieli and Reilly. "I do think judges with a breadth of experience over different kinds of cases bring richer judgment to their cases."

Patrick's ready acknowledgment that he doesn't have all the answers on every issue facing the commonwealth imbued the program with a collaborative, town meeting-like undertone. And in those instances where he didn't have the answer, he said he was ready to "do more homework."