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Councilors criticize Patrick’s comments on SJC nominee

Questions cite sexual orientation

Appeals Court Judge Barbara Lenk would be the first openly gay member of the Supreme Judicial Court Appeals Court Judge Barbara Lenk would be the first openly gay member of the Supreme Judicial Court
By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / April 7, 2011

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Members of the Governor’s Council are faulting Governor Deval Patrick for focusing on the fact that Appeals Court Judge Barbara Lenk would be the first openly gay member of the Supreme Judicial Court.

Lenk’s nomination must be approved by the eight-member council.

Councilor Charles Cipollini of Fall River said Patrick is trying to satisfy political supporters, including activists in the gay community, by nominating Lenk.

“He just picks different groups, and this happens to be their turn,’’ Cipollini said yesterday following a council meeting. “He’s trying to satisfy everyone. He’s satisfying the people who voted for him; let’s put it that way.’’

During a press conference Monday, Patrick said it was “a nice coincidence’’ that Lenk would be the court’s first openly gay member if approved.

Councilor Jennie Caissie of Oxford called Patrick’s comments odd.

“I don’t think he said when he found out that Fernande Duffly was a heterosexual that that was happy coincidence, so why even bring it up?’’ Caissie said, referring to Patrick’s previous nominee to the state’s high court. “If she’s a good judge, she’s a good judge, period. Take the sex out of it.’’

Caissie also took issue with Lenk’s comments about the court’s landmark 2003 decision, known as the Goodridge case, which legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts. Lenk was able to get married as a result of that decision.

“It was almost too jovial, the celebration of a case that was very controversial,’’ Caissie said of Lenk’s comments. “I think it may provide some insight into her judicial philosophy and whether she believes judges should be more active on the bench than simply apply the law.’’

When asked about the Goodridge decision on Monday, Lenk said she backed the ruling.

“Goodridge is the law of the Commonwealth, and certainly I understand and support its basic premise that our constitution stands for equality for all people,’’ Lenk said. “But it’s not the only decision that has had an impact on my life.’’

Councilor Mary-Ellen Manning of Salem faulted Patrick for focusing too much on Lenk’s sexual orientation instead of her judicial record.

Although Patrick did not mention Lenk’s sexual orientation when he introduced her at Monday’s news conference, he did respond when asked about it by reporters.

“I like the idea of firsts, as you know, and I’m proud of this one,’’ Patrick said when asked about the prospect of naming the first openly gay judge to the state’s highest court. “But first and foremost, this is a very well prepared and highly qualified candidate.’’

Patrick also nominated the court’s first black chief justice, Roderick Ireland, and the first Asian-American member, Duffly.

Manning said the public will see Lenk as filling a niche for Patrick, rather than winning the post on her talents.

“It’s very sad that someone with her education and experience and legal acumen is being reduced down to a tagline about her sexual orientation,’’ Manning said.

“His checklist of firsts is undermining the obvious qualifications of Barbara Lenk, and her reputation as a legal scholar is damaged by that because people are going to assume she isn’t qualified.’’

Not every member of the council was as skeptical of Patrick’s motives.

Councilor Terrence Kennedy of Lynnfield said Lenk’s sexual orientation will have zero influence on his decision.

“I look at her as an Appeals Court judge who has been nominated to the Supreme Judicial Court who happens to be gay,’’ he said.

“Clearly the governor is someone who believes in diversity, as do I, but that’s not the main factor in terms of her qualifications.’’

Gay rights advocates are rallying to Lenk’s defense. Kara Suffredini, executive director of the group MassEquality, faulted comments Cipollini made to the Fall River Herald.

Cipollini told the newspaper that Lenk is “not going to be neutral,’’ when it comes to questions of “traditional family values.’’

Suffredini called those comments “nonsensical and deeply offensive.’’

“By Councilor Cipollini’s logic, female judges should not rule on sex discrimination cases, and African-American judges should not rule on race discrimination cases,’’ she said. “This is absurd.’’