Hanlon tapped for appeals court

Gov. Deval Patrick has nominated Dorchester District Court's top judge for a slot on the state Appeals Court.

Sydney Hanlon, who lives in Dorchester and is the first justice of the Washington Street courthouse, would replace retiring Judge Andre Gelinas.

Hanlon must first be confirmed by a judicial vetting panel, which is made up of eight independently elected members known as Governor's Councilors. She was easily confirmed when she went before the council in 1990, after then-Gov. Michael Dukakis nominated her to the bench.

Up until then, Hanlon had spent her career as a prosecutor, working under then-Attorney General James Shannon as head of his narcotics division, working with future governor William Weld and future FBI director Robert Mueller at the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston, and taking charge of the state's first sexual assault unit under future U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, then a district attorney.

Defense attorneys at Dorchester District Court said Hanlon is a smart and fair judge who efficiently manages the courthouse.

"I think this is a promotion that is long overdue for her," said Anthony Ellison, a defense lawyer who has appeared before Hanlon since 1998.

Another defense attorney, Gordon Spencer, echoed Ellison.

"She knows the law backwards and forwards," he said.

Hanlon has also worked on domestic violence issues, establishing herself as a pioneer and using a Department of Justice grant during the Clinton administration to create a court dedicated to domestic violence. That court was closed once the funding dissipated.

"It was thought of as an after-thought crime," Ellison said. "She put that at the forefront."

Dorchester attorneys also had some advice for lawyers who would be approaching her if she is confirmed to the Appeals Court: she has little patience for incompetence.

"Be prepared in front of her," Ellison said. "Don't pontificate. Don't be too verbose. She's a busy woman."

Hanlon declined to be interviewed for this article. Judicial nominees typically decline to talk to reporters while under consideration for a post.

But a 2007 sit-down with the Reporter provides some insight into her thinking as she reflected on working at one of the state's busiest courts.

"It's like working in a minefield," she said of being a judge. "I would like to say, it looks easier than it is."

Hanlon said one lawmaker stated several years ago, "These judges don't understand. When people say they're going to kill someone, they mean it."

"It's like, okay, come tell me which ones. Because lots of people say that," Hanlon told the Reporter. "Some of them mean it, some of them don't. Many, many cases, if you look at them in hindsight, everyone would say, 'Well, of course.' But when you're been here as long as I've been, you'll see there's a lot of false positives. You don't have a crystal ball, you don't know what's going to happen."

Hanlon's comments came at the same time as Superior Court Judge Kathe Tuttman was receiving heavy flack for releasing convicted killer Daniel Tavares earlier that year. Tavares ended up leaving for Washington and allegedly killing a couple there.

Judges can sometimes be "scapegoated" for decisions, Hanlon said. "I think everyone has a responsibility to be knowledgeable about the subject, and do the best you can to make decisions, but as a lot of people have pointed out recently, our bail decisions, for the most part, the law says the issue is the likelihood of somebody coming back to court," she said.

"I think that's often not understood. We often get a small part of the information that everybody knows after something happened. I will try to read the police report, check to see if there's an out-of-state record," she added. "You do have this sense of really walking in a minefield. And you're also constrained by due process. The fact that somebody might have done something or might be really dangerous is the other side."

A Kansas City, MO native, Hanlon is a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.

Attorneys say they expect Dorchester District Judge Rosalind Miller, with whom Hanlon is close, to be a strong contender to take over as chief justice if Hanlon leaves for the Appeals Court.