Cut the fawning over Justice Liacos
by Jeff Jacoby
WHAT SORT OF JUDGE is Paul J. Liacos?
During the budget crisis of 1991, as the Legislature and the brand-new Weld administration struggled to close the $800 million deficit Governor Michael Dukakis had left behind, tens of thousands of state workers were required to take unpaid furloughs. The only exceptions were judges, who were exempted out of deference to the judiciary's constitutional status as a co-equal branch of government.
Most of the state's judges volunteered to give up some of their pay anyway, especially after the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee urged them to do so. "I appeal to your sense of justice and fairness and ask you to do your part," wrote Representative Sal DiMasi, suggesting that with every other public employee making the sacrifice, it would hardly be right for judges not to.
But the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court refused. He blew off the Judiciary Committee chairman as too lowly to deal with ("The appropriate context for discussion of such a matter would be in a meeting with the governor, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the Senate, and myself"). And he icily refused to give up a nickel of his own pay -- then $93,708 a year -- because he deemed the furloughs "ill-advised and devoid of any benefit to the judicial branch."
What sort of judge is Paul J. Liacos?
At a grand public ceremony in May 1990, the Nashua Street Jail was formally dedicated and its antiquated predecessor on Charles Street finally put out of commission. For Suffolk County Sheriff Robert Rufo -- a public servant of impeccable integrity, widely considered the finest sheriff in the state -- it was a moment of particular satisfaction: Rufo had invested many long hours in the effort to close the Charles Street horror show without endangering public safety. But it was also a moment of some concern, for it was clear to Rufo that unless inmates could be double-bunked, the new jail would be overcrowded almost from its opening day.
The dedication ceremony was filled with dignitaries. All the media were there. The mayor spoke. The attorney general spoke. The governor spoke.
And then the chief justice spoke. He began with the expected pleasantries. Suddenly, out of the blue, he turned on Rufo:
"I want to tell the sheriff just this last thing," he barked. "Don't come looking to me for double cells." Rufo took the public slap gracefully, but the judge's rude outburst shocked the audience.
What sort of judge is Paul J. Liacos?
Last year, the Legislature voted -- out of pique or out of thriftiness; depends whom you ask -- to restrict the chief justice of Massachusetts to only one office: the one provided for him in Boston. This was not a suggestion, it was the law of the commonwealth, passed by the House and Senate and signed by the governor. The chief justice, who liked having a second office in a Peabody courthouse, was predictably miffed. But as the state's ultimate guardian of the law, sworn to uphold the will of the people as expressed through their representatives, he could hardly disobey a clear-cut statute, however much he might resent it. Right?
Wrong. Thumbing his nose at the Legislature, he announced that he would keep his second office, law or no law. He refused to vacate the Peabody quarters and suggested that if lawmakers didn't like it, that was their problem, not his.
That's the sort of judge Liacos is -- highhanded, disdainful, obnoxious.
But in the three weeks since he announced his forthcoming retirement from the SJC, he has been fawned over, kissed up to, and showered with praise fulsome enough to have embarrassed Henry VIII. Such a great jurist! And so wise! And sensitive! "Liacos's deeply held and boldly stated views," one Boston lawyer wrote in the Globe the other day, "are built on a foundation that combines pragmatic and empathetic senses gleaned from broad experience in the real world with great learning, not just in law, but in philosophy, ethics, theology, literature, sociology, and many other fields." Well, move over, Thomas Jefferson.
My personal experience of the chief justice has been minimal -- an editorial board meeting or two, a couple of speeches. But a little Liacos goes a painfully long way. The man is haughty, supercilious, abrasive, and imperious. "I have been told universally by every individual legislator I have spoken to about him," state Representative Ed Teague said last year, "that he is arrogant and condescending and that he has created irritation with those members who know him and have to deal with him." As far as I can tell, that opinion is all but unanimous.
Governor William Weld is getting a lot of free advice about who should replace Liacos, advice mostly having to do with the sex and skin color of the nominee. Here's my advice, Governor. Forget the race and gender quotas; look for judicial temperament. Pick the sort of judge who puts the law before his ego. A judge who won't let his learning get in the way of his humility. One who would never embarrass someone in public. One who is respected, not resented, by the people he comes into contact with.
The sort of judge, in other words, that Paul J. Liacos isn't.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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