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SJC justice Ireland is Patrick’s pick for chief

Would be 1st black to lead the court

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By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 5, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick nominated a court veteran yesterday, Associate Justice Roderick L. Ireland, to lead the Supreme Judicial Court, an appointment that would make Ireland the first black chief justice of the nation’s oldest appeals court.

“We are making history again,’’ Patrick said to applause at a State House news conference with Ireland, which was attended by some of the judge’s oldest friends from Springfield, where he grew up.

“My nomination says that anything is possible, no matter where you came from or what your background is,’’ said Ireland, who was once told by a guidance counselor that he would be best suited for a career as an auto mechanic.

To take his seat as chief justice, Ireland needs confirmation from the eight-member Governor’s Council, which is expected to take up his nomination within weeks. He would succeed Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall, who announced her retirement in July, saying she wanted to spend more time with her husband, who has Parkinson’s disease.

Ireland, who turns 66 next month, would reach the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70 at the end of Patrick’s second term, which means the governor would have the opportunity to name a second chief justice before he leaves office. Patrick would also be able to nominate a new associate justice to replace Ireland, but said yesterday that he will wait until Ireland is confirmed.

First appointed as an associate justice by Governor William F. Weld in 1997, Ireland won praise yesterday from the legal community, with lawyers citing his even temperament and work ethic. In statements, the Massachusetts Bar Association cited what it called his “exemplary intellect, poise, and commitment to the rule of law,’’ and the Boston Bar Association referred to his “distinguished career on the bench.’’

Ireland voted with the majority in the court’s ground-breaking 2003 decision to legalize same-sex marriage and, according to lawyers, is a jurist who views defendants’ rights as vital to the legal process.

In two opinions written by Ireland earlier this year, the SJC ruled that a suspect who runs from police despite shouted orders to stop cannot be charged with resisting arrest for those actions alone. On the other hand, he wrote a 2003 opinion that affirmed school officials’ authority to interview students about potential criminal activities during school investigations without reading them Miranda warnings.

On the bench, Ireland said his philosophy is simple: “Call them as you see them, be fair, and let the law dictate where you go.’’

Patrick, the state’s first black governor, expressed pride in Ireland’s nomination; Ireland was also the first African-American associate justice on the state’s highest court. But the governor said race was a “secondary or tertiary consideration.’’

“The most important thing is have a nominee who was going to be absolutely committed to the fair administration of justice,’’ Patrick said, “and who can understand that the issues that come before the court are issues that involve human beings who are trying to sort their problems and resolve their disputes.’’

Patrick said he waited until two days after Tuesday’s election to announce Ireland’s nomination because he did not want the confirmation process to become part of the back and forth of the campaign trail, making his qualifications for the position take a back seat to the politics.

After Marshall announced her retirement, many in the legal community doubted Ireland’s interest in the job, because of his age and because it requires administrative and speaking duties and legislative lobbying that fall outside the normal judicial job description.

Two people close to colleagues of Ireland’s on the court said Ireland told them he had initially conveyed to the governor that he did not want the post; they asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Patrick would neither confirm nor deny that Ireland was reluctant to take the job, saying he had spoken to many judges about the opening.

“In every case, I have looked them directly in the eye and said, ‘Think hard about whether this is something you are ready to do, willing to do, because the demands on the court are not unlike the demands on other parts of government,’ ’’ Patrick said.

As the state’s top judge, Ireland said, he would use his new influence to encourage the judiciary to become more active in mentoring young people, in hope of reducing the state’s high dropout rate.

“Many judges are doing outreach work in that regard, and I hope that I might be able to persuade more judges to do the same,’’ he said.

If confirmed, Ireland will get a $5,000 bump in pay, from $145,984 to $151,239. The salary is set by the Legislature.

Patrick could seek to fill the vacancy left by Ireland from the short list he compiled earlier this year to replace Marshall. The list included US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris, state Appeals Court Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly, and Superior Court Judge Barbara A. Dortch-Okara. Saris is thought unlikely to leave her current post to join the court as an associate justice, however.

Current SJC justices Margot Botsford and Ralph D. Gants, who were also on Patrick’s short list, could also be top prospects to replace Ireland as chief when he retires.

Jonathan Saltzman, John Ellement, and Frank Phillips of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.