Supreme Judicial Court chief: Sentencing bill would create congestion

By 
Andy Metzger, State House News Service
Jul. 26, 2012

In his deliberations over what to do with a sentencing reform bill on his desk, Gov. Deval Patrick apparently reached out to the state’s highest court for input on whether the Supreme Judicial Court’s review of capital cases might suffice for the judicial discretion Patrick has said the bill lacks.

“The short answer to the inquiry is that it would not,” Chief Justice Roderick Ireland wrote to the governor in hand-delivered letter dated Thursday, July 26 and obtained by the News Service.

Ireland wrote that the SJC’s review of capital cases “focuses on the fairness of the proceedings in the trial court” and the law dictating the review “does not encompass reconsideration or modification of the sentenced imposed in the trial court.”

According to the law dictating the SJC’s review of capital cases, capital cases are currently limited to people who were tried and convicted of first degree murder but the sentencing reform bill would add habitual offenders whose third felony has a maximum sentence of life.

The high court is concerned about the influx of cases that would be under its review if Patrick signs the law.

“The court’s jurisdiction is, with limited exception, highly discretionary. The court has the responsibility to select – and must have the room in its docket to hear and decide – the cases that are most important to the development of Massachusetts jurisprudence,” Ireland wrote. “These are the cases that present novel legal issues, unresolved points of the Massachusetts law, the most significant constitutional issues, and like matters of great public concern. If the legislation were interpreted to place all appeals from habitual offender convictions… directly in this court, the court would have less space on its docket for the types of significant cases just described.”

Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said she hopes Ireland’s letter convinces Patrick to try to amend the bill.

“I think this letter certainly should further convince Gov. Patrick that he should file an amendment so there is some judicial discretion in this mammoth sentencing bill,” Walker told the News Service. Later, she said, “I certainly hope it does. He is a lawyer and I hope he is convinced that it is a wise and fair decision to insist that judges are able to judge.”

Patrick’s press secretary declined to comment on the letter but Patrick has talked broadly about his perspective on the bill.

"I'm struggling through whether to send it back with an amendment," Patrick said on WTKK-FM Thursday morning. He also reiterated his support for judicial discretion, saying, "Legislators and governors and pundits can't anticipate the specific circumstances of every case.”