Governor's Council - Important Or Obsolete?

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By: Michael C. Bailey
Published: 07/30/10

Carole A. Fiola’s pending departure as governor’s councilor of the first district opened up the flood gates for prospective successors, but is the post worth filling?

Some legislators think it’s time to get rid of the council, while Democrats running this year for governor’s councilor of district one are more supportive of the government body.

“While most residents are unaware of the governor’s council, their advice has an impact on each of us,” Senate President Therese M. Murray (D – Plymouth) said.

“Is the Governor’s Council necessary? Yes,” said Democratic candidate Oliver P. Cipollini Jr. of Marstons Mills. He added, however, “Can we live without it? Yes.”

The council was created 230 years ago as a check-and-balance body to the executive branch, but today performs only a handful of duties, principle among them the approval of the governor’s judicial nominees. Sen. Murray regarded as a crucial function, stating that the council serves “as the check, the people’s voice, on judicial appointments. It’s on their decision whether or not a governor’s nominee is worthy of a lifetime appointment to the bench.”

The council also appoints and removes notaries and justices of the peace, approves pardons and sentence commutations, and payments from the state treasury.

The councilors represent eight districts in Massachusetts – district one covers southeastern Massachusetts – and meet weekly. They each receive $26,025 a year for their services, and the council costs annually, including administrative expenses, $400,000.

Critics insist that, especially in the current economic climate, the council is no longer a useful body, particularly in light of its habit of approving almost without exception every judicial nominee that comes before it.

Mr. Cipollini conceded that the state’s system of appointing judges for life – as opposed to electing them, as is the process in 34 other states – leaves itself open to “abuse and favoritism.” However, he pointed out that the council is the last stop in the process, which means there are “so many places where the process can fail.”

In that respect, he said the council could and should serve as the final check and balance, to weed out judicial prospects who received their nomination through favoritism rather than on their merits.

Jeffrey T. Gregory, a Democratic candidate for the post from Fall River, agreed. “I believe the governor's council is more important than ever in being the final check point before nominees are to be named as judges,” he said. “There should always be that last round of research completed especially concerning such an important position as a judge.”

Eliminating the council would require a constitutional amendment, and according to State Representative Jeffrey D. Perry (R – Sandwich) several legislators filed bills for the current session calling for the council’s dissolution.

The proposals he’s seen would have Massachusetts emulate the federal model for appointing judges to the US Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, US District Courts, and the Court of International Trade: the governor would present nominees to the State Senate, which would conduct public hearings with the candidate, then vote whether to approve the nomination.

Rep. Perry, who said the governor’s council was “an arcane and no longer necessary body of government,” said public State Senate confirmation hearings would lead to “far more accountability” in appointing judges.

However, chances of any of these proposals coming before the Legislature this year are extremely slim, according to State Representative Matthew C. Patrick (D – Falmouth). “It’s not even on the radar as this moment,” he said. “There’s no time to do it now anyway. It certainly won’t happen in this session.”

Rep. Patrick agreed that the council was an “antiquated” government body, and supported its elimination.

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