Recently, I reported that Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appeared to be grandstanding the appointment of attorney Henry Rigali to a juvenile court judgeship in Hampden County. Since then, the Governor’s grandstand dramatically collapsed — providing a disturbing glimpse into the apparent conflict between the governor’s presidential ambitions, and the administration of the routine functions of government.
There were three candidates recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission as well-qualified for the job. Two were from Hampden County, and the third is from Berkshire County, (also in western Mass.) All Romney had to do was pick one. But the governor inexplicably decided to bypass the Judicial Nominating Commission and appoint a man who had not applied for the job and had no background in juvenile justice, among other concerns. Governor’s Councilor Peter Vickery from the 8th District, which includes Hampden County, called on Romney to withdraw the nomination. (The elected, eight-member Governor’s Council confirms or rejects judicial nominations in Massachusetts.)
But Romney refused to withdraw the nomination, and instead promised to personally preside over a showdown vote at the Council’s weekly meeting. These meetings are customarily chaired by Lt. Governor Kerry Healey, but the participation of the Governor would allow her to vote in the event of a tie. After the Council delayed the vote on the Rigali nomination a week so that Romney could return from vacation to preside, Councilors were subjected to an intensive lobbying campaign by people from inside and outside the Romney administration — including Lt. Governor Healey.
The Councilors, led by Vickery who was the first to publicly oppose the nomination, caucused in a way that is rarely required when the judicial nominating process is working well. A clear majority resolved to stand up to the lobbying pressures and oppose the nomination.
The day before the vote, Romney and Rigali publicly declared they would not withdraw. But as reality slowly dawned on them, Rigali scrambled to the high road. In announcing his withdrawl, he told The Springfield Republican — which splashed the story on the front page — that he was also concerned about bypassing the Judicial Nominating Commission and that he did not want to be the beneficiary of “special treatment.”
In the end, Romney didn’t show-up for the showdown.
Healey opened the meeting with the usual procedures and then unexpectedly closed the meeting. In the presence of numerous reporters and observers who had come for the big event, Healey declared, “The meeting is over” — and stormed out.
With the Governor and Lt. Governor having fled, the stunned Councilors were left to chew it all over with reporters. “The administration, for reasons they haven’t shared with us, decided to completely ignore the Judicial Nominating Commission,” Peter Vickery told the Associated Press. “That’s a very big problem.”
But its not a problem anymore. Vickery and his fellow Councilors did the job they were elected to do — to oversee the selection of the judiciary. There is a system of constitutional government in Massachusetts and they showed that it works — the whims of an imperious governor who is busy running for president, not withstanding.
What is most remarkable in this tale of bravado backed-down, is that Romney has made reform of the judicial nominating process — to depoliticize this vital function of constitutional government — a signature goal of his administration. And he is generally credited with having made great strides. But for Romney to have become the very problem he said he was trying to solve, and in a way that splashed the whole story on the front pages, shows why his bid for the Republican nomination for president may, like the last meeting of the Governor’s Council, be over before it begins.