Roundly praised by councilors for her calm under pressure, her judiciousness and her humility, Dorchester District Court Chief Justice Rosalind Miller won plaudits from members of the Governor’s Council on Wednesday vetting her nomination for an appointment to the Superior Court bench.
At the request of Councilor Marilyn Devaney, Miller described how she took on a brutal kidnapping and rape case when she was a prosecutor and grew doubtful that the young victim had correctly identified her attacker. Miller requested a scientific test, which exonerated the defendant.
“It had a really, really big effect on me,” Miller told the Governor’s Council on Wednesday, describing how the man accused was “perilously close to a rape conviction.”
“You were out for justice,” Devaney said.
Councilors took turns praising Miller, and many indicated they would be voting next week to approve her nomination.
“I’m cheerleading,” Councilor Robert Jubinville said toward the end of Miller’s confirmation hearing.
Miller was nominated by Gov. Deval Patrick to replace Robert Mulligan, the former chief justice of the Trial Court. Joseph Berman, who had previously been nominated by the governor to fill Mulligan’s seat, was rejected when the council deadlocked 4-4 in a March vote.
Among the challenges Berman faced were his hefty campaign contributions. Miller listed no campaign contributions in her questionnaire, and said she had prosecuted or presided over thousands of cases. After the hearing, Devaney told the News Service that she believed Miller’s courtroom experience far exceeded that of Berman.
“If every judge were like her we wouldn’t have any problems in the courts,” said Councilor Terrence Kennedy in a phone interview. Kennedy did not attend Wednesday’s hearing, but said he would support Berman.
Appeals Court Justice Sydney Hanlon, who said she has known Miller for years and testified on her behalf, said, “She is scrupulous about the law. Dorchester Court’s a special place. They don’t tolerate phonies.”
Andrew Miller, an attorney and the Dorchester judge’s son, said that if his mother burned the turkey for Thanksgiving she would feel bad about it long afterwards. “She is scrupulously, scrupulously honest,” he said.
Miller has three children in their late 20s and early 30s. Andrew Miller described his mother returning home at night to cook dinner for the family in her suit.
“I don’t remember burning the turkey,” Miller said after her son’s testimony.
Miller, who is 59, said she was born in London and immigrated with her family to Virginia in 1959 where she said she had the “wonderful experience” of growing up in a small, rural town. After attending the University of Virginia Law School, Miller moved to Massachusetts and worked for the Suffolk County District Attorney from 1979 to 1996 when she became a judge.
As a judge in Dorchester, Miller said she was able to see how many defendants have drug abuse and mental health disorders. A supporter of specialized drug courts, Miller said a family member has had substance abuse issues.
Asked by Councilor Michael Albano about mandatory minimum sentences, Miller said she does not support limiting judicial discretion because each case is unique, and noted, “I follow the law.”
Miller said the state can do “a lot more than what we’re doing currently” to prepare inmates for re-entry into society, and said the practice in other states where judges help craft re-entry plans is worth considering.
Councilor Jennie Caissie, the council’s lone Republican, asked some broad questions of Miller.
“Philosophically, in your opinion, what is the role of a judge? Is it to protect the collective, or is it to protect individuals?” Caissie asked Miller, who said it is a “balancing act.”
Caissie also asked, “What happens when the law is wrong? We all know people who serve in the Legislature, and I think there’s a public perception that they’re the best and brightest, and I think in some cases the reality is different, and sometimes the Legislature just gets it wrong. Isn’t it the role of the Judiciary to say you can’t trample on an individual’s rights?”
“I think that might be for a higher level court than the one that I aspire to,” Miller said.
Devaney said when she met with Miller about the Superior Court nomination she had not at first realized that Miller was already a judge.
“It tells me how humble you are,” said Devaney. She said, “I think I apologized five times to you for not knowing you’re a judge.”
Superior Court Judge Mary Ames testified to Miller’s work ethic.
“She is a woman of strength. She is a woman of courage. She’s never backed down from a difficult decision,” said Ames. She said, “She’s a worker and she’s willing to take on the tough assignments.”
Miller said she has recused herself from many cases, and believes that in order to maintain faith in the legal system it is important for judges to “try to get out of your own shoes” and see if their presiding might raise doubts about their impartiality.
“I would err on recusing myself,” said Miller, who said she has done that with an individual she once prosecuted who continues to make regular appearances at the Dorchester court. She said, “When you become a judge, you become a little bit more isolated.”