Judging the judge

Anger rises over actions of Judge Timothy Feeley

A protest last week outside a Salem courthouse featured a refrain made familiar by the scholarly legal eagles who regularly populate the president’s rally, where they apply only the most reasoned conclusions to complicated issues.

“Lock him up,” shouted about 200 people gathered outside the Ruane Judicial Center, according to this Salem News account. The “him” being summarily tried and sentenced was Essex Superior Court Judge Timothy Feeley, but the crowd might as well have used “them” instead and urged the twin jailing of both Feeley and Manuel Soto-Vittini.

After all, it was Feeley’s recent decision to sentence Soto-Vittini to probation rather than jail on a heroin distribution conviction that prompted protest in Salem — and on Beacon Hill.

Republican State Rep. Jim Lyons has filed a measure to have Feeley thrown off the bench, an effort that US Senate candidate Geoff Diehl, a Whitman state rep, has signed on to. Gov. Charlie Baker has weighed in, too, calling the decision “ridiculous and outrageous.”

What’s more, when asked whether he’ll take steps to remove Feeley from the bench, Baker didn’t seem to answer directly, but likened the case to that of Judge Thomas Estes in Western Massachusetts., who was recently censured by the Supreme Judicial Court for having sex with a drug court clinician in his chambers.

“Look, the courts need to take a look at this stuff, as they did with Judge Estes,” Baker told reporters last week, appearing to lump together a case of judicial misconduct with questioning the judicial discretion exercised by a judge in a case.

His remarks appear to have been the last straw for former federal judge Nancy Gertner, who pens an op-ed in today’s Globe ripping Baker’s comments as a “Trump lite” echo of the president’s habit of “trashing judges with whom he disagrees.”

The dust-up over the case comes as the state grapples with a devastating opioid epidemic and following recent passage of a sweeping criminal justice law, signed by Baker, that aims to deal with drug addiction more as a public health problem than criminal justice issue.

Soto-Vittini did not claim an addiction problem and was apparently dealing drugs strictly as a commercial enterprise. Feeley was, nonetheless, certainly free to sentence him to probation for a charge that was his first criminal conviction. What’s more, because Soto-Vittini is a legal resident, but not a US citizen, he faces likely deportation back to his native Dominican Republic based on the conviction. Critics of Feeley’s decision would have had him first incarcerated here, at a cost of roughly $50,000 a year, and then sent back home.

Last week, the Patch documented a set of cases Feeley has handled in which critics say he went too easy on defendants, including one defendant whose bail he lowered and who is now facing charges of killing a Maine sheriff deputy after getting released.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Anger over such a case is understandable. At the same time, Gertner says, the attacks on Feeley are coming while we are in the midst of a rethinking of the tough-on-crime era and a moral panic” over crack cocaine in the 1980s that led to “mass incarceration and wildly disparate sentences for blacks and Hispanics as compared to whites, with little impact on distribution.”

Judges in Massachusetts enjoy lifetime gubernatorial appointment. Nonetheless, the message of the attacks on Feeley, Gertner says, is, “The way to avoid being criticized is to imprison more and more. It is always a one-way ratchet. This time we can ill afford it.”