Georges poised to bring district court perspective to SJC

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – On the doorstep of reaching the state’s highest court, Boston Municipal Court Judge Serge Georges Jr. acknowledged the impact of systemic racism on criminal justice and defended his peers who “try to get it right every day.”

Georges, the latest Gov. Charlie Baker nominee for the Supreme Judicial Court, said at his confirmation hearing that he could not dismiss the likelihood that “issues that plague society” would be present in the courts.

Asked by Governor’s Council Robert Jubinville how any defendant could get a “fair shake” given racial disparities in Massachusetts criminal justice data, Georges rattled off names of fellow BMC judges and argued that there was “no statistical difference” in sentencing by race in that specific court.

“It exists. It does,” Georges, the son of Haitian immigrants, said about the effects of racism. “But I do say that there are a lot of good people trying to do the right thing every day, and that might not be popular to say, but it needs to be said.”

The Governor’s Council, which vets and approves judicial nominees, plans to vote on Georges’s nomination on Dec. 9, but he already appears to be a lock for a seat on the top court.

Most councilors praised Georges as they questioned him during Wednesday’s hearing. Councillor Terrence Kennedy called the nomination a “home run.” Councilor Joseph Ferreira said he “could not think of a better selection.”

Perhaps the most explicit acclaim came from Councilor Christopher Iannella, who said he will be “more than proud to vote for (Georges) next week.”

If Georges is approved next week as expected, the vote will cap off Baker’s overhaul of the court and cement a historic feat: all seven active SJC justices will have been appointed by the same governor.

The council recently confirmed Appeals Court Justice Dalila Argaez Wendlandt to a position on the high court and elevated SJC Associate Justice Kimberly Budd to the court’s top role following the sudden death of former Chief Justice Ralph Gants in September.

Baker’s transformation of the court started in June 2016, partway through his first term, when three justices — Robert Cordy, Fernande Duffly and Francis Spina — announced plans to retire in a short span.

He nominated Budd and fellow SJC Justices David Lowy and Frank Gaziano all at once. They were each sworn into the top court that August, less than a week apart from one another.

Kicking off Georges’s nomination hearing Wednesday, Baker praised the nominee for packing “an enormous amount of professional experience into his career.”

“People just believe that this is a very special person who respects everyone, respects the law and brings a tremendous amount of intellectual firepower and personal grace to all of his engagements and his interactions,” Baker said.

Georges, 50, spent years as an attorney in both solo practice and at larger firms. Since 2013, when he was appointed by then-Gov. Deval Patrick and confirmed unanimously by the Governor’s Council, Georges has served as an associate justice in the Boston Municipal Court’s Dorchester Division.

He presided over the Dorchester Drug Court from 2014 to 2018. Georges said Wednesday he sees significant value in speciality court sessions, arguing that they can “get better results than on the regular probationary docket” so long as they are properly staffed.

His background sets him apart from almost the entire field of SJC justices: in the court’s centuries-long history, only a handful of district court judges, including current Justice Lowy, have ever risen to the state’s top court.

Baker estimated the number is fewer than 10 and possibly even fewer than five, an “astonishingly small” figure.

Multiple speakers Wednesday, including Baker and several of the witnesses who testified on Georges’s behalf, cited that experience as an important feature to bring to the high court to inform its decision-making.

“When you make decisions and you’re in conferences and you’re in deliberations, you’re thinking about how this plays out Monday morning in Dorchester District Court at 9 a.m. when there’s 125 defendants sitting in front of a judge, and that’s just incredible,” Ferreira said.

Georges said the “majority of the touches that Massachusetts citizens” have with the state’s trial court system occur in community courts, a setting where he believes empathy is key.

“It’s important to know the difference between a criminal and someone who violated a criminal statute, for all of us, the district attorneys, the defense lawyers, and the judges,” Georges said. “That involves a heck of a lot of empathy to the things that people don’t have — holding people accountable, giving them an opportunity to earn dismissals and redemption, but still having an understanding that there’s a whole lot that people don’t have.”

During his hearing, Georges at times declined to outline specific views on broad issues. He did say he believes that the constitutionally protected rights of lawful gun owners and public safety “can mutually coexist,” but on topics such as the possible tension between a conservative U.S. Supreme Court and abortion or voting rights, Georges cautioned that he did not want to violate judicial ethics by answering.

“My view is we would continue to do what we’ve always done, and if a matter comes before the court that bears on fundamental constitutional rights or the construction of statutory rights, the SJC as it winds its way up will do what they always do: consider the arguments and make the best decisions that they can,” he said.

The court is poised to become more diverse following the latest wave of nominations from Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. With Georges, Wendlandt and Budd, three of the seven members would be people of color, while Budd, Wendlandt and Elspeth Cypher would ensure three of the seven justices are women.

Asked Wednesday how meaningful it was as the son of Haitian immigrants to be nominated, Georges replied, “I can’t say that it means everything, but I can tell you that it’s pretty close.”

A range of speakers backed Georges at his hearing, including Appeals Court Chief Justice Mark Green, who jokingly lamented that he had hoped to welcome the judge into his circuit.

“He’s a very special person, and I’m confident he will be a very strong addition to an already strong bench on the Supreme Judicial Court,” Green said.

Former U.S. Sen. Mo Cowan, who described himself as a “longtime friend” of Georges, said the judge has proven through both his professional work and his personal relationships to be “a servant leader committed to fairness, justice and honor.”

“Whether from the bench, in the classroom, or around his barbecue smoker — which produces delights worthy of awards — Serge ever is dispensing wisdom, hard truth and encouragements designed to help us all be the best versions of ourselves,” Cowan said. “If this sounds similar, it is because Judge Georges conducts himself similarly in the courtroom, understanding that we are all works in progress.”

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