Monday, April 11, 2011
Governor's Council: archaic and unnecessary

In a recent editorial, the Globe called the Governor’s Council “an inefficient rubber-stamping operation at best, and a drama-prone sideshow at worst,” and stated that the council must go. I could not agree more — the council is an unnecessary body of government and a waste of taxpayer dollars. That’s why I filed a bill in January to abolish it. I consider this bill to be a common-sense measure, long overdue, that would remove an outdated vestige of colonial government that lingers for no good reason.

The bill is not in reaction to any individual councilor's performances or actions, as I believe that many councilors have served the public well. I have long been an advocate of abolishing the Governor’s Council. The bill I have filed would shift the council’s few remaining duties to other branches, requiring that the state Senate approve the nomination of all judicial officers, as at the federal level.
Over the years, the Governor’s Council has appeared in headlines for ridiculous and sometimes illegal behavior — from 1964 when five councilors were indicted on ten counts of bribery and extortion, to 2001, when the council balked at acting Governor Jane Swift’s request to meet via speakerphone while she was in the hospital awaiting the birth of twins. In the last four years, the council has done little more than serve as a rubber stamp for the governor, approving 90 out of 92 nominees. The other two withdrew their nominations.
Established in 1628 as a political check on the royal governor, the council lives on as an archaic vestige of colonial rule. Every state in the country manages to seat its judges without a Governor’s Council (with the exception of New Hampshire). Abolishing the council here is not a new idea. In 1964, the majority of the body’s substantive responsibilities were stripped by voters, leaving the council with few remaining powers. It approves expenditures from the state treasury, a process that is almost wholly symbolic because it does not apply any clear discretion over the decisions which are already approved by the governor. It approves gubernatorial nominations — a task that could easily be performed by the Senate as it is in other states and by the federal government — after the nominees are vetted by the legal scholars and practitioners that comprise the Judicial Nominating Commission and the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Appointments. It also continues to approve pardons and commutations.
There is little evidence that the council commits any serious inquiry into decisions such as approving gubernatorial appointments and expenditures from the state treasury. From 2007 to 2010, the average meeting time was a little over five minutes, and only four meetings lasted longer than twenty minutes. In 2010, a total of forty meetings cost taxpayers more than $500,000. This amount may not put a sizable dent in our current budget problems, but those funds would still be better spent on teachers, services for our seniors and disabled citizens, or to reduce our state’s extraordinary debt.
Instead of bringing transparency to the judicial nominating process by serving as a check on the governor’s actions, the council lends an air of unwarranted credibility by approving nominees in rank and file with the governor, and in some cases, after nominees have received an unequivocal “unqualified” rating by the Joint Bar Committee. In an exposé published last year, in which the current state and function of the Governor’s Council was examined, the conclusion was that “the council is an out-of-the-spotlight arena for pay-to-play politics.”
My bill is a petition to amend the constitution of Massachusetts. In order to appear on a ballot and let the voters decide the fate of the Governor’s Council, the bill must get a majority vote in the 2011-2012 constitutional convention, and again in the 2013-1014 constitutional convention. The next step for the bill is to be heard by the Judiciary Committee on April 14 at 11 am.
State Senator Brian A. Joyce represents Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth.