The Baker administration on Wednesday averted a vote on a controversial Land Court nominee recommended by the governor, as Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito abruptly adjourned a meeting of the panel that vets candidates for the bench.
Some members of the elected Governor's Council objected as Polito announced, "That concludes our business today," banged the gavel and made a swift exit from the council chambers.
Left unaddressed was the nomination of Jennifer Roberts, a Cape Cod attorney seeking appointment to the court that handles complicated property cases. In her interview last week, councilors critiqued Roberts for her lack of trial experience, even as a bar advocate, and for planning upcoming appearances at the Supreme Judicial Court and the Superior Court even while a nominee for a judgeship on the Land Court.
Three councilors offered criticism to the News Service about the way the administration avoided a vote on Roberts, speculating the administration would use the extra time to attempt to secure more votes on the eight-member council or opt instead to withdraw the nomination.
"That was outrageous," Councilor Eileen Duff told the News Service after the meeting adjourned. "They just sealed their fate."
Though Duff said after the Baker administration's maneuver she had made up her mind, she declined to share how she plans to vote with the News Service. Of particular umbrage to the Gloucester Democrat was how Wednesday's meeting complicated the schedule of Councilor Marilyn Devaney, who planned to vote against Roberts in between a morning wake and afternoon funeral for her cousin.
"They said that the vote would be taken today," Devaney told the News Service, on her way to the Watertown funeral afterWednesday's meeting. She said, "This is the most disrespectful manner that they could have done this."
According to the Baker administration there was no official agenda for the meeting.
A Watertown Democrat, Devaney said she would have voted against Roberts and speculated that the administration would withdraw her nomination.
The council usually votes on nominees a week after their interview.
Tim Buckley, director of communications for the Baker administration, told the News Service that the administration thought it would be "premature" to vote on Roberts's nomination Wednesday because Roberts is engaged in a trial. Without the responsibilities of a trial, Roberts would have time to work the phones for her own nomination. Buckley also said the administration has "not ruled out" potentially bringing Roberts back before the council.
"There's only one reason in my opinion why you do this - I said this during the last administration when they did it - it's to put pressure on councilors to do some horse-trading to get somebody to change a vote. I don't like it. It's not right," said Councilor Robert Jubinville, a Milton attorney and Democrat.
"This administration is not going to horse-trade like the Patrick administration did. I saw the horse-trading and it wasn't pretty. I think that they are being sincere whatever their reasons are," said Councilor Jennie Caissie, an Oxford attorney and the only Republican on the council. Perhaps taking a jibe at Devaney's 16-year tenure on the council while making the point that delaying a vote is not unique, Caissie said, "I haven't been here since 2000 BC like some of my colleagues, but I've been here for a couple of years and it's certainly been done."
Caissie, who supports Roberts's nomination, also suggested the administration may have delayed the vote because Duff was on vacation when Roberts was interviewed by the council last week. Duff said she interviewed Roberts "extensively" Tuesday and as a realtor she is well informed about the Land Court.
Councilor Joseph Ferreira, a Somerset Democrat whose district includes Cape Cod, said it is up to the administration to decide when to bring a nominee up for a vote and said he will vote in favor of Roberts.
"I'd vote yes today, and I'd vote yes next week or the week after," said Feirrera, a lawyer and the former chief of police in Somerset.
Ferreira said five of the six Land Court judges attended Roberts interview and each fully supported Roberts' nomination. If confirmed Roberts would become the seventh Land Court judge, and Ferreira said the sixth judge was away at a conference last Wednesday.
Ferreira said he asked Judge Karyn Scheier, who has served on the Land Court for 21 years including as chief justice, whether she had reservations at the end of Roberts's interview and Scheier responded, "Absolutely not. She's one of the five most qualified people in the Commonwealth to sit on that court."
Last week, Councilor Michael Albano, a Longmeadow Democrat considering a run for sheriff, said he was prepared to vote "favorably" on Roberts nomination, bringing to at least three the number of councilors on record saying they support Roberts's nomination.
Saying she had been undecided walking into the council chambers on Wednesday, Duff said she does not know whether she might have been the swing vote. If the eight-member council deadlocks, the governor can break the tie.
"Suddenly this morning I become very important to a lot of people," Duff recalled. Refusing to say how she would now vote and disclosing that she would not have voted against Roberts if the vote had come up Wednesday, Duff said, "I've made my mind up now."
"I am so insulted by this administration," Duff told the News Service. Under the impression Devaney had to miss her cousin's funeral on Wednesday because of the council meeting, Duff said, "It sets quite a tone of what they think of the council."
Polito led off the meeting by extending her and Gov. Charlie Baker's sympathy to Devaney and her family.