Renewed calls for western Mass. representation as Healey picks Boston resident 'Bessie' Dewar for SJC
Gov. Maura Healey looked outside the judiciary for her first nomination to Massachusetts' highest court and tapped state Solicitor Elizabeth "Bessie" Dewar, who briefly succeeded Healey as attorney general earlier this year, for a Supreme Judicial Court robe Friday.
"Bessie Dewar is a consensus builder who has significant experience working with the Supreme Judicial Court and also a deep passion for the important work that the Court does. She is a true student of the institution, and I am confident that she is the right person to fill this seat in this pivotal moment for the Court," Healey said in a statement. "I'm grateful for the hard work of the Supreme Judicial Nominating Commission to recommend her and for the Governor's Council's careful consideration of her nomination."
Dewar is the first person to be nominated for a spot on the SJC bench without already having been confirmed as a judge in a lower court since Robert Cordy, a former federal prosecutor and top legal advisor to Gov. William Weld, was nominated to the SJC by Gov. Paul Cellucci in 2000.
Dewar is a graduate of Harvard College and the Yale Law School and has a master's degree from the University of Cambridge. She lives in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood with her husband and two daughters.
If she is confirmed by the Governor's Council, Dewar will fill the SJC seat that Justice Elspeth Cypher is giving up when she retires on Jan. 12, 2024.
Healey's Supreme Judicial Court Nominating Commission is continuing to accept applications for the seat that will be vacated when Justice David Lowy steps down in February.
"While I'm sure [Dewar] is a fine nominee for the SJC, for the remaining spot, hopefully Gov. Healey does look to western Mass. for that regional representation," said James Winston, president of the Hampshire County Bar Association. "There are so many qualified candidates out here in western Mass."
Winston said he and leaders of the bar associations of the other three western Massachusetts counties are advocating for just that. He said the state's high court hasn't had someone from the region since Justice Francis X. Spina of Pittsfield stepped down in 2016.
At 43 years old, Dewar could also be in line for a lengthy tenure on the bench. She won't reach the state's mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 until July 4, 2050.
"If attorney Dewar were to serve the entire term, you know, that's decades of shaping policy for the state of Massachusetts," said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association.
Dewar served as acting attorney general between Maura Healey's resignation from that office to be sworn in as governor on Jan. 5 and the Jan. 18 inauguration of Andrea Campbell, who won the 2022 election for AG. First Assistant Attorney General Kate Cook was in line to serve as acting AG, but Healey tapped her to be chief of staff in the governor's suite. Healey appointed Dewar as first assistant attorney general to replace Cook.
According to her office, Healey in 2016 named Dewar to serve as the state's second state solicitor. In that role, Dewar supervises the briefing and arguing of appeals by attorneys throughout the attorney general's office, advises the AG on exercising her authority to decide whether to appeal from adverse decisions, and leads the office's "friend of the court" amicus brief practice in state and federal courts.
"During her time in the AG's Office, Bessie has served the Commonwealth with integrity, sound judgement, and a genuine desire to help the public. She is an exceptional attorney and person who helped establish the Office of the State Solicitor and now leads that office and its work," Campbell said. "Bessie is held in high esteem by all those who have had the privilege of learning from or working alongside her, including me. I’m pleased that Bessie’s long-standing commitment to the law and public service will continue to serve and better the Commonwealth, following her nomination -- and, I hope, confirmation — to the SJC."
The state's first solicitor, Peter Sacks, was nominated to the Appeals Court by Gov. Charlie Baker and confirmed by the Governor's Council in August 2016. Dewar was assistant state solicitor under Sacks.
Reproductive Equity Now President Rebecca Hart Holder highlighted Dewar's work in the attorney general's office, particularly around reproductive rights. She said Dewar wrote briefs opposing Texas's six-week abortion ban and bounty hunter law, and "made critical contributions to dozens of multistate briefs filed in cases across the country regarding abortion access and gender-affirming care."
"State supreme courts have always had a vital role to play in defending reproductive freedom, and that has never been more true than in a post-Dobbs America. As state solicitor, Elizabeth (Bessie) Dewar has continuously led efforts to advance reproductive equity within Massachusetts’ borders and combat anti-abortion attacks across the country," Hart Holder said. "We know that Bessie will bring her brilliant legal mind to the Supreme Judicial Court to make profound impacts and create a lasting legacy for reproductive freedom in the commonwealth."
Dewar previously worked as an appellate and trial-level lawyer at Ropes & Gray LLP, was a civil rights advocate at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and served as a law clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer at the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge William Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and U.S. District Court Judge Louis Pollak.
Sam Doran of the State House News Service contributed reporting.
This story includes information from NEPM reporter Alden Bourne.