An attorney up for a judgeship on the Massachusetts Land Court faced some pointed questions and critiques Wednesday from members of a panel charged with voting on her nomination.
Members of the eight-member elected Governor's Council quizzed Jennifer Roberts about her relatively low number of trials, lack of exclusive focus on the Land Court, and some upcoming appearances she has following her Wednesday interview.
Roberts said that out of 20 trials over her 35 years of experience, four had been before juries, but she defended her experience, saying, "The trial experience that I have is pretty intense and pretty high-level, frankly."
The Cape Cod lawyer acknowledged that she had applied for District Court judgeships in 2005 and 2006 before she had any jury trial experience. In a questionnaire for the Land Court slot, Roberts also disclosed upcoming appearances at the Barnstable Superior Court and the Supreme Judicial Court.
"I have certain matters, including a jury trial in Barnstable Superior Court presently scheduled for October 13, 2015 and a hearing before the Supreme Judicial Court on a matter that I have been involved with since 1997 presently scheduled for early November, 2015, that I would like to complete before taking the oath of office," Roberts wrote.
"I actually checked the rules of judicial conduct," Roberts told Councilor Marilyn Devaney, who questioned whether her appearances would amount to a conflict of interest. Roberts said following her nomination she is barred from appearing in the Land Court but allowed to "continue the practice of law." Roberts noted that following her Barnstable appearance "I will then have five jury trials."
"But what about the perception? How important to you is the perception?" asked Councilor Christopher Iannella, a personal injury lawyer.
"Is it a happy choice? No," said Roberts. She said, "I have a client who can't afford to replace me . . . I feel like I need to do this for my client."
Roberts said she appreciates that her upcoming appearances are "an issue," and said she has "taken steps to no longer appear in the other courts," though she has retained clients.
Gov. Charlie Baker's chief legal counsel Lon Povich said he respects the councilors' opinions but he believes judicial nominees should not be barred from continuing to practice after being nominated for a judgeship.
"I think candidates should be allowed to continue to practice law under the rules that govern their practice until they are confirmed," Povich told the News Service. "I respect the council's opinion on that, but until it's confirmed we don't expect people to give up their law practice, their ability to make a living."
"Perception for the public is the integrity to the court system," said Councilor Robert Jubinville, who is also a defense lawyer.
"It is one very important element," said Roberts, who said fairness, knowledge and judicial temperament are other factors in an upstanding justice system.
Former colleagues and members of the judicial system spoke highly of the 61-year-old Boston University School of Law graduate.
Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson said Roberts appeared in his court on a Martha's Vineyard land swap that had "come undone," and he commended Roberts on appearing in a case that was "very well tried."
Saying she spoke on behalf of the Barnstable Court Clerk's office, Assistant Clerk-Magistrate Christine Higginbotham described Roberts as "professional, intelligent," a "woman of integrity," and a woman with a "terrific sense of humor."
In 1990, Roberts was made partner at Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, and left three years later when she said the housing market tanked.
"It was a horrible time to be a young partner at a real estate firm," Roberts said, explaining her move to Cape Cod, where she worked at Bianchi and Paquin in Hyannis, on her own and at her current firm, LaTanzi, Spaulding & Landreth in Orleans.
Brian Hurley, director of Rackemann, said Roberts started working for the firm in 1985 and praised her "great analytical skills." He said there was unanimous agreement that she should become a partner.
Councilor Terrence Kennedy, a defense lawyer, told the News Service he was troubled by Roberts's lack of trial experience, and he found it "very troubling" that in roughly six years as a defender at the Committee for Public Counsel Services she had "almost zero trial experience."
Kennedy said it is nearly impossible for a defender to do a good job without going to trial in six years, and he said Roberts had explained herself by saying prosecutors offered her clients "good deals."
Councilors appeared impressed by Roberts's summation of the legal land matters she had experience in - including a tangle of issues involving easements, deed restrictions, condominium and zoning law.
Jubinville questioned whether if the interview was continued to next week Roberts would attend the Governor's Council proceeding or her client's trial. Roberts said she would seek a "way to accommodate all the concerns."
Devaney said in her 16 years on the council, she has noticed that Land Court nominees to the "very specialized court" have been committed to Land Court matters through their legal careers.
"It's not about getting a robe. It's about the right fit," Devaney said.
When Jubinville asked whether Roberts is a person who is completely interested in the Land Court, Roberts said, "It's what I've always wanted, so I would say, 'Yes. It is me.' "