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SJC chief justice nominee could be first Black woman to lead Mass. supreme court

Gov. Charlie Baker nominated Kimberly Budd on Wednesday to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest appellate court. If confirmed, the SJC associate justice would be the first Black woman to hold the top position. 

Kimberly Budd addressed the press on Thursday after her nomination to chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by Gov. Charlie Baker. ILLUSTRATION BY LAURYN ALLEN/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Budd would be the second female chief justice as well as the second Black chief justice in the court’s 328-year history.

Jade Brown, a lecturer at Boston University School of Law, said Budd’s nomination should be celebrated.

“We’re moving, little by little, day by day, moving toward a world where it’s not unusual to see a Black woman attorney, a Black woman judge,” Brown said, “and now it’s not unusual to see a Black woman who’s the chief justice of the court.”

Budd’s nomination follows the Sept. 14 death of Chief Justice Ralph Gants. President of the Massachusetts Bar Association Denise Murphy said Gants’ death left a “gaping hole” in the Court.

“They needed to fill his position so that the administration of justice could continue in a smooth and efficient manner,” Murphy said. “I think [Baker] had a very difficult choice, making the choice of who was going to be the next justice. But I’m very, very happy it is Justice Budd.”

Murphy praised Baker for the historic appointment, calling it a “strong signal” the state is moving toward judicial diversity in the Commonwealth. 

“Choosing a younger chief who is a woman and is a woman of color is an incredibly bold move for a Republican governor,” Murphy said. “But it was a brilliant move, in my opinion, because it shows that this Commonwealth is moving forward and is opening its arms.”

Budd has served as an associate justice on the SJC since 2016, and has composed more than 85 Court decisions. 

“She is an incredibly calm, effective, brilliant woman,” Murphy said. “She has an innate ability to inspire people to do their best.”

The SJC, comprising six associate justices and the chief justice, hears appeals on a variety of civil and criminal cases. Brown said Budd’s experiences as a Black woman will bring a new perspective to judiciary decisions. 

“I see some things a little bit differently than my colleagues, and I think it’s that perspective that’s been shaped by my experiences as a woman of color that allows me to bring new ideas and new perspectives,” Brown said. “It’s not just about the color of her skin. It’s about the perspectives that she may have.”

The chief justice administers and oversees the court, making the role what Brown called “one of the most visual representations of the justice system in Massachusetts.” 

Budd also brings other historically underrepresented perspectives to the court, including that of a working mother, Murphy said. The justice had previously left her job in the private sector to spend more time with her family.

“She is a spectacular role model,” Murphy said. “She has firsthand knowledge what it’s like to be a working woman attorney, trying to juggle the demands of parenthood and being an attorney, especially an attorney practicing in a courtroom atmosphere.”

Ronald Wheeler, director of BU’s Fineman and Pappas Law Libraries, said diversity strengthens the judiciary because it increases favorable public perception of and confidence in the courts. 

“The wider breadth of diversity you have, the more likely that someone will really understand in a deep and meaningful way your perspective in the matter before the court,” Wheeler said. “It will underscore and it will renew people’s faith in the system, and without that, the system collapses.”

Budd’s appointment highlighted the need for a diverse Massachusetts judiciary, something Brown said residents of the Commonwealth should advocate for.

Justices of color make up 15.5 percent of state supreme court seats nationwide compared to a population that is 40 percent POC, according to a February report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Creating and strengthening educational pipelines to the field of law and continuing to appoint people of color could improve representation in government, Wheeler said.

Janna Adelstein, research and program associate in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said she hopes Budd’s nomination will inspire women of color to participate at the highest levels of the judiciary.

“Even though she had already been on the Court, giving her a leadership position demonstrates to a lot of women of color, and also especially Black women,” Adelstein said, “that they, too, can have this kind of important leadership role shaping the law in their state.”

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