Mass. Gov. Baker Elevates Justice Kimberly Budd To Lead State's Top Court
Updated at 3:28 p.m.
Noting the "bittersweet" circumstances of her nomination to lead the state's top court, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Kimberly Budd said she hopes to emulate the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants's respect and collegiality if she is confirmed, making history Wednesday by becoming the first Black woman nominated to the state's highest judicial post.
Budd earned the nomination Wednesday of Gov. Charlie Baker to ascend from associate justice to chief justice of the 328-year-old court, a role that has been vacant since Gants died last month. During a press conference unveiling her nomination, Budd praised Gants as a mentor and a leader who was able to "bring people together" and treat his six fellow judges as a "team of equals," a model she said she will mirror.
"We're in the middle of a pandemic," Budd told reporters. "People in the commonwealth are in a panic. People are hurting, and we have to make sure that the judiciary is running as well as it can, and that's what I'm focused on now."
The Governor's Council, an elected body that vets and confirms judicial nominations, will interview Budd on Nov. 12. If confirmed, she would become not only the first Black woman chief justice in the history of the state's top court, but also just the second woman to the lead the court after Margaret Marshall and the second Black chief justice after Roderick Ireland. Budd said the historical significance of her nomination was "a little overwhelming and it's very meaningful to me."
"But the idea of actually just being the chief of the Supreme Judicial Court is more overwhelming to me, so I'm going to have to just work at pulling it all together," Budd said.
Budd's fellow justices already appear ready to welcome her as chief, at least according to Baker. The governor said during Wednesday's press conference that he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito spoke with several other justices while they weighed potential nominees and heard glowing reviews of Budd as both a jurist and as a person.
"Several of her colleagues said some version of the same thing when I reached out to talk to them during this process," Baker said. "They said, 'Spending time with Justice Budd makes me want to be a better person.'"
"She believes in empowering people and building confidence," Baker continued. "More importantly, during a time that has been immensely difficult, a pandemic that has revealed the painful reminders of our country's continued racial disparities and the tragic passing of Chief Justice Gants, Justice Budd has embodied calm, steady and collaborative leadership."
Budd has been a member of the Massachusetts judiciary for 11 years. She was nominated to the state Superior Court in 2009 -- for a position Gants vacated when he joined the SJC -- by Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat.
Baker then successfully nominated Budd to join the state's highest court in 2016 alongside fellow Justices David Lowy and Frank Gaziano. She was unanimously confirmed, and Budd has since authored 85 SJC decisions.
At 54 years old, Budd is set to become the Supreme Judicial Court's youngest chief justice in at least a century. Arthur Prentice Rugg was appointed chief justice in 1911 at the age of 49.
The daughter of former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd, she was born in Michigan, raised largely in Peabody and finished high school in Atlanta before attending Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. Budd clerked for former Appeals Court Chief Justice Joseph Warner and worked as a litigation associate at Mintz Levin after law school.
As an assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts in the major crimes and drugs unit, Budd worked on hundreds of cases, ranging from narcotics to bank robbery to fraud. She also served as a member of an ethics task force Patrick convened in response to several corruption scandals on Beacon Hill.
During her 2016 confirmation hearing, Budd outlined opposition to the death penalty and to imposing mandatory minimum sentences, said she believes the state lists too many people on its Sex Offender Registry, and indicated she does not "see any reason why an illegal immigrant couldn't have a driver's license."
Her stance on licenses drew criticism from former Republican Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, and it contrasts with Baker, who has said he opposes any change to state law that would allow undocumented immigrants to acquire licenses.
Asked Wednesday about that disparity, Baker replied that he does not believe "you should make decisions about things like this based on single issues, ever." He also said that neither he nor Polito discussed any cases pending before the SJC with Budd during the interview process, including a challenge to his executive powers during a state of emergency.
"The two things that really stood out here were how many really bright, really smart, really important people in the judiciary spoke to her character and her manner and the way she works with and relates to other people," Baker said. "We've never been a single-issue administration on anything, and we're certainly not going to start now."
While her father was a Republican appointee in the Justice Department, Budd also told reporters she is registered as an unenrolled voter. Before joining the Superior Court, she had donated to several political campaigns, including Patrick, former Democratic Attorney General Thomas Reilly's gubernatorial bid, and Barack Obama's first presidential campaign.
Gants served as chief justice for six years before his death in September following a heart attack. The seven-member panel has operated with only six justices since then.
Five out of the six sitting justices are all Baker appointees. The lone judge who was not tapped by Baker, Justice Barbara Lenk, plans to retire on Dec. 1, one day before hitting the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The Republican governor will now get to nominate two additional associate justices, one to replace Lenk and another to fill Budd's position if she is confirmed as chief justice. Those two nominees, if confirmed, would give him a complete sweep of the state's highest court.
"Our hope would be that if we get a couple of really good people in front of the Governor's Council shortly, they'll be able to find a way to make the schedule work between now and the end of the year," Baker said. "I know the folks that are currently on the court would like to see us nominate folks and try to get it done by the end of the calendar year. That's the goal."
At least one member of the Council that will decide Budd's fate celebrated the nomination. Councilor Eileen Duff said in a press release that she is "absolutely thrilled" Baker selected Budd, particularly because it is "long overdue" for a Black woman to lead the court.
"She will be an excellent chief justice," Duff said. "Not only is she a brilliant and thoughtful jurist, she is also compassionate and a strong coalition builder, all important attributes for a chief justice."
The central Massachusetts seat on the Governor's Council has been vacant for more than a year, since Councilor Jennie Caissie resigned and the Legislature opted not to exercise its authority to replace her. Worcester Democrat Paul DePalo, the only candidate on the November ballot to fill the vacant seat, tweeted his support for Budd, but voiced concern that his district would not have representation during the confirmation process.
"I support this appointment.The question is whether Central Mass, whose seat on Governor's Council has sat vacant for a year, will have a voice in this or the two SJC appointments soon to follow," DePalo wrote, adding that "850,000 Massachusetts residents have had no voice in judicial appointments for a year."
The nomination also drew praise from a range of legal organizations, advocacy groups and elected officials. Martin Murphy, president of the Boston Bar Association, applauded Baker's choice and noted that Budd served on the BBA Council for three years.
"Justice Budd's career, including her 11 years on the bench, demonstrates her extraordinary legal acumen, her deep commitment to justice for all, and the careful attention she gives to every case that comes before her -- all of which will serve her well in leading a court whose decisions affect the lives of all of us in so many ways," Murphy said in a press release. "We look forward to the Governor's Council's review of her nomination and her confirmation by that body."
Committee for Public Counsel Services Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti praised Budd's nomination to the top judgeship as a "historic moment."
"Justice Budd is an excellent, inspired choice for chief justice," Benedetti said. "I am confident she will blaze her own trail while maintaining the positive momentum Chief Justice Gants left behind. I applaud Governor Baker for this decision, and I hope this is an indication that his administration will continue to select high court justices with diverse backgrounds and experiences."
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley praised Budd as an "excellent choice" and urged Baker to add more diverse experiences and viewpoints to the court with his next two picks.
"Make no mistake, representation in government matters -- and our judiciary is no exception," Pressley said. "In this moment of national reckoning on racial injustice, we must continue working to increase diverse representation in our court system. This will move us closer to the promise of equal justice for all."
ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose struck a similar point, arguing that "the judiciary should reflect the range of lived experiences and backgrounds that come before it."
Governor's Councilor Marilyn Devaney of Watertown, who represents Budd on the council, selected Thursday, Nov. 12 as the date to interview the justice. She told her fellow councilors to hold open Friday, Nov. 13 on their calendars as well in case the hearing runs into a second day.
Devaney initially proposed holding the hearing later in November, prompting Councilor Mary Hurley, a retired judge, to say, "We're a rudderless court system. There is not a chief justice of the Supreme Court and we don't have the administrator either. This can't wait that long."
"I don't think it should be done on Zoom," Councilor Robert Jubinville said. "This is a very important nomination and we shouldn't rush it, and we should make sure it's done in person and have the witnesses there. There will be a lot of people that want to come in and look at this, and see it."
Jubinville suggested meeting in the Gardner Auditorium, the largest hearing room in the State House and the space Baker has been regularly using for his press conferences.
Polito, who presides over the panel, told council members that the administration's legal office will locate a suitable venue and make sure technological capabilities allow for people to participate virtually if they don't want to attend in person.