Members then vote quickly on judicial nominees who appeared before the council in weeks prior. While Manning and Devaney often add dissenting voices, candidates are, with remarkably few exceptions, always approved. By the time applicants face councilors, they have already been vetted by a governor-appointed Judicial Nominating Committee (JNC) and approved by the governor, whose best interest is to advance nominees he is certain will win more than 50 percent of council votes. Members say the council — as an elected layer — guards against the executive branch running roughshod over the judiciary. But considering their apathetic approach and predictable record, it doesn’t seem like councilors protect much of anything.
The routine assembly takes less than 15 minutes, at the end of which Timilty finally shows up and asks, “What did I miss?” The answer, some might say, is nothing — no matter who shows up and when, and regardless of what’s on tap, the results are almost always the same.
A history of incompetence
The council wasn’t always populated by redundant automatons in ceremonial posts. Four of the first 10 State Senate presidents, including one-time Massachusetts governor and Founding Father Samuel Adams, served time, as did thrice-elected 19th-century House Speaker Timothy Bigelow. Established in 1780 by Adams and other framers via the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the then-nine-member commission was intended to assist with “ordering and directing the affairs of the Commonwealth, according to the laws of the land.” For almost the next 180 years, the council gave “advice and consent” to governors and lieutenant governors on virtually all matters, aside from the issuing of vetoes.
Things changed in 1959, after five out of eight councilors were indicted and jailed for committing more than 1000 combined acts of corruption and bribery. Five years later, its members were stripped of many of their duties — such as fixing salaries and waiving licensing fees — that a good number of their predecessors had exploited. Remaining responsibilities, which are still in place today, were limited to green-lighting judicial and quasi-judicial officers, granting pardons and commutations (none of which have come before them since Governor Jane Swift left office in 2003), and authorizing State Treasury expenditures (which entails signing forms pushed in front of them with no debate).
With statutory castration relegating the council to virtual powerlessness, critics in the 1960s and ’70s saw little reason for it to continue to exist. Among the body’s loudest adversaries at the time was former governor Michael Dukakis, who, upon taking power in 1975, unsuccessfully attempted to abolish his council via both the legislature and through a ballot initiative.
“When Massachusetts was one of the most corrupt states in the country — before I was in office — councilors had to give the governor permission to use the bathroom,” Dukakis tells the Phoenix. “When I got there, even though they didn’t have the power that they had [prior to 1964], if a judge died, there would still be a line outside their office before the body was cold — either that or people would be coming in all day looking for everything from pardons and commutations to Celtics tickets.”