On Wednesday, July 22, by a 7-1 vote, the Governor’s Council confirmed sitting Associate Justice Scott Kafker to be the next Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Justice Kafker succeeds Appeals Court Chief Justice Philip Rapoza, who retired from the bench on June 30. As Chief Justice, Kafker will oversee the 20 other Appeals Court judges and–as he put it—work as “the daily guardian” of the Commonwealth.
This marks the first judicial appointment by Governor Charlie Baker, whose administration was applauded by the Council before the vote for putting forward such an “outstanding nominee right out of the box.” Councilor Terrence Kennedy remarked that “if they’re all like that, we’re going to have an easy ride the next four years.” It is also is the first judicial appointment to have come through the recently-reconstituted Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC), chaired by BBA past-president Paul Dacier. The JNC played an integral part in reviewing the candidate and is equally deserving of praise for its role in this process.
Who Is Justice Kafker?
First appointed to the Appeals Court in March of 2001, Justice Kafker has heard almost 2,700 cases and written opinions in nearly 900. Prior to joining the Appeals Court, he served as chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) and deputy chief legal counsel to Governor William F. Weld. During his time in the Weld Administration, Kafker served alongside Charlie Baker and current SJC Justice Robert Cordy.
A graduate from Amherst College and the University of Chicago Law School, Kafker spent his first few years out of school as an associate at Boston’s Foley, Hoag & Eliot. He has taught at Boston College Law School, the National Judicial College, and serves on the SJC’s Advisory Committee on the Rules of Civil and Appellate Procedure. Justice Kafker is a trustee of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a member of the American Law Institute.
The Process of His Nomination and Confirmation
As you may recall, earlier this year we reviewed the procedure for the appointment of new judges and explained the first two crucial steps of the process: The screening of applicants for judicial office by the Judicial Nominating Commission and the review of successful candidates by the Joint Bar Committee (JBC). Once Chief Justice Rapoza announced his retirement plans in February, it was clear that finding a suitable replacement would be the first order of business for the JNC, and it was their work that led to Justice Kafker’s nomination by the Governor.
JNC staff meeting at the BBA on July 8 with affinity bar leaders on strategies to increase diversity of the bench
After his nomination, Justice Kafker was subjected to a final review by the Governor’s Council, which is an elected body consisting of 8 Councilors and the Lieutenant Governor. All judicial nominations are subject to review by the Council — the final step in this multi-layered selection process.
Last week, we attended Justice Kafker’s public confirmation hearing, with the Governor’s Council taking witness testimony in support and, from one individual, in opposition to Kafker’s nomination. They also heard from Justice Kafker himself and asked him questions that would better inform their vote.
Justice Kafker sits facing the Governor’s Council
Testifying on Kafker’s behalf was a diverse and comprehensive list of witnesses. Justice Cordy and Appeals Court Justice Elspeth Cypher—who have both worked extensively with Kafker in the past—spoke to Kafker’s professional qualifications, citing his extensive experience and background, his legal, managerial, and collaborative skills, as well as his calm and contemplative temperament. Council members inquired about Kafker’s leadership qualities, his disciplinary ability, and his “non-trial lawyer” legal background. Amid an exchange of jokes from both sides, Cordy and Cypher made plain with utmost conviction their belief in the abilities of Justice Kafker.
Law clerk Brittany Williams and court officer John Harrison spoke to their positive experiences working for Judge Kafker. Williams described Kafker as a “first-rate supervisor, mentor, and judge” and further emphasized his collaborative and pragmatic nature. Court officer John Harrison began by stating that he didn’t realize Kafker was a judge because “he was a regular, nice person”— which was received humorously by the Council. Harrison also conveyed how all the employees like Justice Kafker because he treats them all with respect. Councilors noted how much they valued this testimony because it demonstrated Kafker’s civility and managerial abilities.
Striking a common theme, Dana-Farber’s general counsel Richard Bosky and Kafker’s longtime friend and law-school classmate David Abelman, further testified in support of Kafker’s collaborative skills. Bosky spoke to Kafker’s diligence in preparation for board meetings, his dedication, and the value of his advice. He also mentioned how Kafker made it his priority to diversify the board. Abelman added that Kafker is fair, passionate, and leads by example.
The only person to speak in opposition to the nomination was Patrick McCabe of the Fatherhood Coalition. While McCabe was quick to praise the justice’s legal writing ability, he raised questions about Kafker’s leadership ability based on child-custody decisions to which the Coalition has objected. McCabe expressed concern over the fact that judges—including Kafker—routinely grant sole custody to one parent without any explanation.
In his address to the Council, Justice Kafker stated that if he were confirmed, his mission would include speeding up the issuance of decisions, creating more specialized expertise for better collaboration, promoting diversity on staff, and pioneering a new system of technology in the courts for improved efficiency. Kafker described himself as responsive and respectful, saying he respects everyone from all branches of government and tries to treat everyone with dignity. The hearing was cordial and flowed smoothly, with little debate, and several Councilors declared their support for Justice Kafker.
The Governor’s Council reconvened yesterday to vote on Justice Kafker’s confirmation, with Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito presiding. Polito, who takes part in the selection process and facilitate the Governor’s Council review, pledged that only the best candidates will come before the Governor’s Council, after Councilor Jennie Caissie offered congratulations to the Administration and all those involved in the process that produced the newly-sworn-in Chief Justice Kafker. We echo this sentiment and are pleased to see the JNC’s hard work beginning to bear fruit. We hope this is only the first of many strong appointments, and encourage everyone with any interest in a judgeship to apply, as the only way to assure we have great judges is to start off with great candidates.
– Jing Li
Boston Bar Association