District court nominee brings legal, life experience

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – It isn’t Michelle Fentress’ years or her resume that most excite members of the Governor’s Council, the elected officials tasked with approving new judges in Massachusetts — it’s her life experience.

At 39 years old, Fentress — an assistant clerk magistrate and former assistant district attorney whom Gov. Charlie Baker has picked for a District Court judgeship — is considered by some councilors on the young side for a judicial nominee.

“Very young,” Councilor Joseph Ferreira said.

“A little younger than … I would typically like a nominee to be,” Councilor Terry Kennedy said.

But, Councilor Mary Hurley told Fentress, she will make “sound, reasoned judgments” on the bench and “in spite of your age, or perhaps because of your age but your life experiences, you’re going to add a significant dimension to the District Court.”

The nominee, who currently serves as an assistant clerk magistrate in Suffolk Superior Court’s Criminal Division, went into detail at Wednesday’s council hearing on her family’s involvement with the court system and how she was called upon as a teenager to act as a parent to her sister’s children.

Fentress was 13 when her older sister, who she said experiences mental health issues, became pregnant for the first time at age 16. Fentress and her mother wound up caring for some of her sister’s children.

“By the time I got my license to drive, I was acting like a parent,” she said. She described court hearings and her sister’s committal to a state hospital while Fentress was attending law school.

“I went this far back in my history and I got this personal because there have been questions about my age and whether I have enough life experience to be a judge,” Fentress told councilors.

“My story is a firsthand account of how judges can alter the course of a person’s life for good,” she said.

Fentress’ father was an MBTA bus driver and her mother was a phlebotomist. “I didn’t have any lawyers in my family. We had no judges, or politicians, or anyone working in a profession that I could’ve shadowed,” the Northeastern School of Law alumna said.

Instead, it was the example of Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” that made Fentress decide, at age 5, that she wanted to be a lawyer.

Her career began as a Suffolk County assistant district attorney in 2006, serving on the Central Division Team, Gun Prosecution Task Force, and Major Felony Unit. She moved to the Department of Correction as counsel in 2011, then private practice for two years. Between 2014-2017 she was prosecuting counsel for the state Department of Public Health.

With the ultimate goal of achieving a judgeship, Fentress applied to be an assistant clerk magistrate to get “a peak inside…the other side of the courtroom.” Since her 2017 appointment in Suffolk County she has conducted arraignments, bail hearings, initial probation surrender hearings, and pre-trial conferences, according to Baker’s office.

Attorney Shahria Boston, who considered Fentress a mentor when they were at Northeastern Law together, said Fentress enjoys bringing a “diverse perspective” to case evaluation, “being a Black woman who lived in both the inner city and minority communities, as well as in the suburbs where she had been the only minority in the room.”

Councilor Kennedy, who noted he had worked with Fentress in the courtroom on a couple occasions, described a gap in available judicial candidates from communities of color as a result of past discrimination.

While he might consider 45-60 a target age for a nominee, Kennedy said, there was discrimination 20-40 years ago “when people of color weren’t admitted in large numbers in law school.”

“I think it’s important we have diversity on the bench and we have to accommodate for that by picking some folks that are a little younger,” the Lynnfield Democrat said, adding he is “absolutely” voting for her at next week’s assembly.

Retired Boston Municipal Court Judge Michael Coyne spoke in favor of Fentress at the hearing. “I was able to watch her grow and develop into an excellent attorney she is today,” he said. “She possesses strong negotiation skills of a seasoned trial attorney and has earned the respect of her peers and all the court personnel she’s come in contact with.”

Referencing a prior conversation with the nominee, Councilor Ferreira said, “I told you, I thought that your resume might’ve been a little light, and you were very young. And then I told you that as a police chief for more than nine years, I never promoted the ones that hung around the longest. I promoted the ones that did the best. And your life experience is just phenomenal.”

If confirmed, Fentress, who celebrated her 39th birthday earlier this month, would be able to serve until 2051 when she reaches 70, the mandatory retirement age for judges in Massachusetts.

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