Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

The Year in Review: Looking Back at 2014 (and Ahead to 2015)

December 30, 2014

We knew at the start of 2014 that this year would mark a turning point: Marty Walsh was set to be sworn in as the first new mayor of Boston in 20 years, and both Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray were entering their final full year in office.

We now know that Charlie Baker, former Weld Administration official and health-care executive, will be the next Governor, and long-time legislator Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst is expected to be chosen as the next Senate President when the Legislature reconvenes in early January for its 2015-16 session.  The only continuing member of top leadership at the State House will be Speaker Robert DeLeo, though the countdown has begun toward the 2017 end of his term, which is limited by House rules to eight years.

This fall’s elections also saw former BBA Executive Committee and Council member Maura Healey, in her first campaign for elective office, win the race to replace her former boss, Attorney General Martha Coakley.

Change was in the air on Beacon Hill well before Election Day, with a large number of members departing in the middle of their terms.  The session began in 2013 with Senator Katherine Clark and Representative Eugene O’Flaherty as co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee, but by early 2014, both were gone.  Clark won a special election last December for Ed Markey’s seat in Congress after his election to the U.S. Senate.  O’Flaherty gave up his chairmanship after 12 years to become Mayor Walsh’s Corporation Counsel.  William Brownsberger was named the new Senate co-chair, and House vice-chair Chris Markey filled in temporarily for O’Flaherty.  Stephen Brewer, chair of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, is retiring – no word yet on his replacement.

Amidst this upheaval, the Legislature enacted sweeping changes to the state’s laws on domestic violence.  The changes, including a required minimum 6-hour hold before the release from custody of anyone accused of a domestic assault and a ban on publicly releasing  identifying information in such cases from police logs, were prompted in large part by the scandal surrounding the lengthy criminal history of Jared Remy, who pleaded guilty in May to the first-degree murder of his girlfriend.

After the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the Legislature passed gun-law reforms that solidify Massachusetts’ place as one of the most-restrictive states in the country while also addressing the concerns of gun owners about the scope of police chiefs’ authority to deny them a license to own a weapon.

Offenders convicted of first-degree murder as a juvenile will face a 20-to-30-year minimum before parole eligibility, depending on the severity of the crime, under a new law.  The Legislature was on notice that the state’s pre-existing law – imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles and adults alike – was unconstitutional since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama.  But shortly after the BBA released its December 2013 principles opposing juvenile life without parole sentences, our own SJC followed with a pair of decisions last Christmas Eve (Diatchenko and Brown) that overturned any sentence of life without parole for juvenile murders.

And in a move mostly of interest to the legal community, the Legislature also created a limited right to attorney voir dire in state-court jury trials.  The new law takes effect in February, and an interim order – developed with the help of a committee that included BBA Secretary Mark Smith — is already in place.  (On January 21, the BBA will host a CLE program on the new rules.)

Although this session will conclude, for the first time since 2008, with no broad changes to mandatory minimum sentencing – which the BBA opposes — such reforms were a growing topic of discussion throughout the year.  Several candidates for statewide office, including the incoming Governor, expressed support for the elimination of mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenses.  A standing state commission on criminal justice, including BBA representative Marty Murphy, wrapped up 2014 by voting for a similar recommendation.  And a bill to that effect is expected to be filed in January on behalf of a large new caucus of legislators supporting drug-law reforms.

Change was afoot as well at the Supreme Judicial Court, where Chief Justice Roderick Ireland stepped down shortly before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.  His colleague on the SJC, Ralph Gants, was elevated to the top position in the state’s judiciary, and Geraldine Hines was promoted to the SJC from the Appeals Court, becoming the first black female justice and putting women in the majority for the first time.  Governor Patrick made both selections, with the approval of the Governor’s Council.

Five of the seven current justices on the SJC were appointed by Governor Patrick, who named the first Jewish (Gants) and black (Ireland) chief justices, and the first Asian-American (Fernande Duffly), and openly-gay (Barbara Lenk) justices.  His imprint on the judiciary extends well beyond the high court, as he appointed 188 of the state’s 411 sitting judges.  Recent retirements, spurred by long-overdue pay raises for judges phased in by the Legislature over 2013 and 2014, created some of that turnover.  For the historic diversity of his selections, the BBA gave Governor Patrick its Beacon Award for Diversity and Inclusion.  With Justices Hines, Spina, and Botsford turning 70 in the next four years, Governor Baker will have the opportunity to place at least three justices on the SJC.

Here at the BBA, we proudly released Investing in Justice, the report of our Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts, chaired by former BBA President J.D. Smeallie.  The report received universally positive attention from the press, including a front-page story in the Boston Globe.  The Globe followed up with two supportive editorials and an editorial cartoon.

Our work in this area is far from done, as both J.D. and current BBA President Julia Huston have begun meetings with key legislators, making the case for a $30 million increase in legal-aid funding over the next three years.  The Task Force concluded that such an increase in legal-aid funding is crucial to alleviating the justice gap that sees 64% of qualified applicants turned away and has created a troubling influx of pro-se litigants in our courts.  Backed up by three independent reports from economic analysts, the Task Force Report also demonstrates that an investment in legal aid will grow the economy and will more than pay for itself in the form of reduced state costs in a variety of areas, such as shelter for the homeless, medical expenses, and foster care.

This year, the BBA also argued against a shift in accounting practices being considered by Congress – one that could have had a devastating impact on law firms.  We advocated for the uniform guardianship bill that passed the Legislature on the final day of formal sessions; supported by our Trusts and Estates Section and the BBA Council, the bill will streamline cooperation between courts of different jurisdictions on guardianship and protective proceedings, making these cases more efficient, saving the time and resources of the probate court and attorneys that practice there.  Our death-penalty working group led to a broadening of our long-standing opposition to the death penalty to include federal cases.  A BBA task force looked into the fall-out from the drug-lab scandal triggered by state chemist Annie Dookhan’s criminal misconduct and called for increased funding, stricter oversight, and a prompt resolution of all open cases.  And we learned that the SJC had largely adopted the position of our amicus brief in Commonwealth v. Taylor, in which we called for clarification of the speedy-trial rule.

In 2015, we will continue to engage with all three branches of government to promote our agenda.  In January, bills will be filed on our behalf on a broad range of issues, including an update to our estate law on the spousal elective share, a uniform law on intellectual property, and technical changes to title protection rules.  The new Governor will file his first budget in March, and we will be seeking continued increases to the judiciary budget, which grew to $612 million this year, as well as expansion of their specialty courts for veterans, substance abuse, and mental health.

In short, we look forward to an exciting and productive 2015.  Happy New Year!

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association