Mitt Romney marched into the Massachusetts State House in 2003 as a self-declared reformer, pledging to fix a judicial nominating system he decried as riddled with patronage and backroom deals.
Quoting John Adams, the new governor vowed to appoint judges purely on merit, put partisanship aside and restrict political contributions by those applying for the bench. “The citizens of Massachusetts deserve to have a squeaky-clean process that has no room for politics and favors,” Romney said as he announced changes to judicial selection that were hailed as a national model.
Friends say the fun, affable man they know hasn’t appeared on the campaign trail — perhaps because he’s trying too hard.
Three years later, Romney changed course. He effectively took over the independent judicial-screening commission he had unveiled with such fanfare. And as he geared up to run for president in 2008, he dismissed members of the commission who were resisting his choices for judgeships, according to documents and interviews.
Romney’s judicial nominees and his ill-fated effort to revamp a politicized system offer a window into how he made some of his most important decisions as Massachusetts’s chief executive. As a Republican governor in a strongly Democratic state, he started as a good-government idealist, bumped up against an entrenched system and ultimately decided to work within it. And if, as Romney suggests, his time as governor is a key selling point for the presidency, his judicial appointments may be one of his most lasting legacies.
Though he once said people connected to state government would be at a disadvantage in seeking judgeships, Romney ended up appointing seven lawyers from inside his administration.
In his final 17 months in office, he pushed through a surge of judicial nominees, some with controversial records, others with the kind of political connections he once condemned, records show. They included a former consultant for Bain & Co., the consulting firm where Romney made his reputation in business;a former Republican legislator rejected as too political by the screening panel; and a court clerk who had been reprimanded for asking a female co-worker to perform a lap dance at a strip club.
Before leaving office, the governor was forced to withdraw several nominees.
Judicial appointments often spark political fights, especially in a divided government. Romney’s Republican predecessor, Jane Swift, also drew criticism for late-term nominees deemed too political, including the Republican state House leader and a longtime GOP operative with no court experience.
The current governor, Deval L. Patrick (D), has been generally praised for his state Supreme Court choices, including the first black chief justice. But a number of his lower-court nominees have faced controversy, including a woman whose husband, a Democratic state representative, had donated tens of thousands of dollars mostly to Democrats, including Patrick.
Unlike other governors, Romney promised far-reaching reforms.
“About 65 percent of these people [who were] appointed judges in Massachusetts — I’m not saying they’re not qualified, but they got appointed because of who they know,” said Christopher Iannella Jr. (D), the longest-serving member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, the Colonial-era body that approves nominees. “Romney tried to change it, and I don’t think he was successful. I don’t see any difference between him and the rest.’’
By Jerry Markon and Alice Crites, The Washington Post, Published: May 30, 2012