New Judiciary Committee chair draws on lawyer-mediator background

Issue March/April 2017

State Representative Claire D. Cronin, a Democrat representing the 11th Plymouth District, is the new House chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, after her appointment this term by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. Her new role is a prestigious leadership position that is of vital importance to the bench and bar. Cronin was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives for the 11th Plymouth District, which includes both Brockton and Easton, on Nov. 6, 2012.

Cronin began her career at Wynn and Wynn PC in Raynham, and she went on to maintain a sole practice in Brockton up until the time she was sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives. She has been affiliated with Commonwealth Mediation since 2002, where she has arbitrated and mediated cases involving a wide range of issues, most notably the landmark settlement of the Massachusetts clergy sexual abuse cases.

"Representative Cronin brings a wealth of legal experience to her new leadership role, including more than a decade of working as a mediator and arbitrator," said MBA Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy. "In fact, her work as a neutral on emotionally charged and complex issues offers a glimpse at what may be her most valuable skill - the ability to bring people to a consensus."

Cronin previously served as vice chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary where she worked on key legislation in the committee, including family law, civil rights issues and legislation criminalizing the trafficking of Fentanyl. Cronin also served on the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technology, and the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.

Well-regarded by the bar, Cronin earned the 2016 MATA Legislative Leadership award from the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys. In 2015, she received the Beacon of Justice Award from the Equal Justice Coalition for her support of legal aid.

"Her work on behalf of those most in need of legal services was, and is, exemplary," said John Carroll, who was chair of the EJC in 2015 and presented Cronin with her award. "Now she is about to assume the weighty responsibilities of House Chairperson of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. She has the two most important virtues we, as citizens, could hope for in that position: fairness and compassion. Representative Cronin is the embodiment of those two virtues. Combined with her capacity for hard work, the House would be hard pressed to find a better choice."

A graduate of Stonehill College and Suffolk University Law School, Cronin recently spoke with the Massachusetts Bar Association's Jason Scally about her new role, the issues her committee may face this term and how her background as a lawyer-mediator will help.

Q. What are the most important issues facing the Judiciary Committee this session?

We receive close to 1,000 bills on a wide range of complex issues, so we are dealing with issues from criminal justice to constitutional issues, privacy issues, real estate issues, criminal procedure, civil procedure - the list goes on and on. Once we get all of the bills from the Clerk's office we'll be able to get a better sense of what appears to be some of the most pressing issues. I anticipate that criminal justice reform will be a hot topic this session. There's been a lot of discussion in that regard, certainly.

Q. A proposal related to shared custody that was followed closely by the family law bar stalled last year. What is the future of the shared-custody proposal?

We were able to pass the bill in the House last year but it didn't go through in the Senate. This session bills have been filed that directly relate to custody issues and shared parenting. We will continue to vet and review them. The issue is coming back, that's for sure.

Q. Where would you like to see it end up?

As with any piece of legislation, we are always seeking to build consensus around the issues. Last session we made significant progress, but the ball wasn't pushed over the finish line. This year I'd look to build on the progress we made last year and continue the conversation.

Q. Gov. Baker has filed a criminal justice reform bill following the report from the Council of State Governments. What's the next step?

There was a working group that worked with the Council on State Government, and I appreciate the really hard work they did, along with CSG and the co-chars. The previous Judiciary Chair, John Fernandes, did a fantastic job on that working group. The working group released a report based on the findings of the working group, and Governor Baker filed the bill. It will basically go through the legislative process the same as any of the other bills. I expect that we'll be having a public hearing on it in the not too far future.

Q. What is your position on mandatory minimum sentences?

That's broad, but I try to approach every issue with an open mind; that's the mediator in me. We're likely to have numerous bills on the issue around mandatory minimums, and the CSG legislation touches on that, as well. All of these bills will have public hearings, and I'm looking forward to hearing from all sides, and examining the issue in depth. It's a little more complex than most people think. When we talk about mandatory minimums we're talking about mandatory minimums with regard to a range of offenses, from murder to guns to drug trafficking, so it's not one size fits all. It's very complex, and it will require significant, thoughtful analysis.

Q. What role do you see the Judiciary Committee having with regard to the rollout of the new marijuana laws in Massachusetts?

That will be interesting. This year a new Committee on Marijuana Policy was created. It is being chaired by Rep. Mark Cusack in the House. The committee will probably be addressing concerns of public safety, consumer protection and taxation among other things. Rep. Cusack will do a great job on that. Along with that, I believe our committees will probably intersect around issues such as operating under the influence of marijuana. We really don't have standards in place for that, so I imagine we will be working together on some of these issues after the Policy Committee completes their work.

Q. How did you get into arbitration and mediation?

It started out with my background as a litigator. I had experience on both sides of the bar - both plaintiffs' and defense bar. Originally I had taken a little time off to stay at home raising my children, and it was a wonderful way to get back into the workforce with family friendly hours, and my experience provided me pretty good training. I work with Commonwealth Mediation, one of the leaders in the mediation-arbitration world.

Q. Do you still maintain an active arbitration/mediation practice?

I handle a few cases a month, but it's very limited at this point because I'm devoting myself fully to being a state representative. I will probably do fewer now as chair of the Judiciary. I think my time constraints will be many right now, so I imagine my mediation-arbitration practice will take a back seat.

Q. Does your background as a neutral help you in your role as a legislator?

Absolutely. As a matter of fact, when I ran for office that was more or less one of the issues I ran on. As a mediator, you must be able to look at all sides of an issue. You can't go in with a set-in-stone opinion that doesn't waiver. One learns how to bring people of various opinions and biases together, and you really learn the art of compromise. Those same skills have prepared me well to serve in the Legislature.

Q. Why did you decide to run for public office?

I grew up in a family that valued public service. A strange tidbit that most people would be surprised to hear is I'm the third generation in my family to serve in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. My mother's uncle served in the 1920s. My mother's brother served in the 1940s, and went on to become the mayor of Brockton. I was elected in 2012, as the third generation. I grew up recognizing that there was strong duty to give back to your community. Before I ran for office, my volunteer work in the community was rooted in public service. I served on the Old Colony YMCA board for 12 years. I served on the Foundation for Excellence in Education in Easton. I just grew up with public service always in the back of my mind. As my children got older, the seat that I ran for, the 11th Plymouth District, was vacated by a longtime state rep, Geri Creedon, so it was an open seat. I've always had a strong interest in politics. I was a political science major in college, and there's always an intersection with law and politics, as well. Many years ago I worked in the State House as an intern in the House of Representatives, and I went on to become a staff member of Governor King in 1982, so the interest was always there and the timing was right.

Q. What do you find most challenging about being a state representative?

The most challenging part is something that many people deal with: time management. I think that there just isn't enough time in the day to do all that you want to do.

Q. What do you find most rewarding?

The first thing - and I could never properly articulate this when I was running for office - but deep down I like to help people. And every day I have an opportunity to do that. I love that about the job.

Other Articles in this Issue: