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Experience, abortion key issues in Democratic primary for western Mass. Governor's Council seat

Four Democrats are running in the September 6 primary for the Governor's Council seat representing western Massachusetts.

The panel has several duties, including approval of Parole Board members, as well as pardons and commutations. But the most prominent function: Confirming judicial appointments from the District Court level all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Mary Hurley, a former Springfield mayor and retired judge, is stepping down from the Governor’s Council after what will be six years in office.

There are three lawyers vying for the Democratic nomination. They all say their legal experience would be an asset when it comes to vetting judges. The one candidate who isn't an attorney is Tara Jacobs, a member of the North Adams School Committee.

"Judges work with far more than just lawyers,” Jacobs said. “I hope to be the voice at the table that represents the rest of us."

Jacobs said being part of the hiring process for a school superintendent and other administrators in her current position will help her if elected.

"I'm able to evaluate candidates on their merits and pick choices that have served our communities very well,” she said.

One of the attorneys she’s up against is Jeffrey Morneau, a former Hampden County Bar Association president. He said he's already done a lot of the work of a governor's councilor when he served on a panel that reviews judicial candidates before they get nominated by the governor.

"Which is, reviewing the applications, reaching out to members of the community and to the legal community in the areas particularly where that judge is going to serve," he said.

Morneau recently has represented clients battling with the state over the condition of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse in downtown Springfield.

Another candidate, Michael Fenton, is not only an attorney, but also a Springfield city councilor. He said that combination would help him if elected.

"Being a partner at a large, regional firm as well as my background in Democratic activism and public service are a really unique and required component to this race,” Fenton said.

Candidate Shawn Allyn also has experience in politics, mounting an unsuccessful bid for Hampden District Attorney in 2014. He said his work in the courtroom makes him qualified.

"I know judges’ temperaments. No two judges are alike. I know what it's like to represent a litigant in criminal court, in civil court,” he said. “And I know how to argue motions in front of judges. I know how they react. I know which judges are competent [and] I know which judges are not."

Allyn has also represented some Springfield police officers accused of misconduct in recent years.

On the issues, there's a lot of agreement about the need for regional equity on the bench, as western Massachusetts no longer has representation on the Supreme Judicial Court.

And with Roe v. Wade having been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, abortion and reproductive rights is another hot topic in this race. Jacobs said nominees to Massachusetts' highest court must support those rights.

“Being of a mind that their personal choices shouldn't impact those who feel differently, and preserve the right for abortion is absolutely, 100% for me" Jacobs said.

Fenton agreed.

"I wouldn't be voting for any Supreme Judicial Court justice who isn't vocally pro-choice,” he said.

Morneau took it a step further and said the same should also be true for Superior Court judges, who he said have to deal with cases involving minors wanting abortions against their parents’ wishes.

"Those judges are making those decisions for the most vulnerable individuals in our community,” Morneau said. “And that is children under 16 who want an abortion."

But Allyn stopped short of saying supporting abortion and reproductive rights is a must for judicial candidates.

"I am pro-choice, but I think the litmus test has to be qualifications, because the judges don't determine what the law is,” he said. "Our Legislature says what the law is, and our Constitution says what the law is. So it's very important that we're going to get judges who will enforce the law."

Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, recently signed into law a bill strengthening reproductive health care rights in the state, in response to the Roe v. Wade reversal.

As far as this campaign goes, the three lawyers have been vigorously fundraising to win a part-time position that pays about $36,000 a year.

According to state data, Fenton had more than $67,000 on hand as of the end of July, with Morneau (at $63,000) and Allyn ($57,000) not far behind. Jacobs was sitting at $3,700.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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