Disorder in the court
Judge overrules DA’s attempt to drop charges against counter-protesters
SIMMERING TENSIONS over Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s vow to turn a page on the traditional approach to prosecution apparently boiled over yesterday in Boston Municipal Court, where a judge essentially took over the role of the DA from Rollins’s office, a move applauded by a police union leader and branded as “lawless” by a former federal judge.
The showdown came during court appearances by some of the counter-demonstrators who were arrested while protesting Saturday’s “straight pride” rally in Boston. A total of 36 arrests were made by Boston police.
Boston Municipal Court Judge Richard Sinnott agreed to drop charges against two of the 16 protesters who appeared before him, but he refused prosecutors’ request to drop charges against seven people facing nonviolent charges in exchange for eight hours of community service. (Prosecutors did not seek to drop charges against any of those charged with violence against police or assault.)
Sinnott’s action, as the Globe reported, represented a “striking role reversal,” with the judge assuming the usual position of prosecutor, while the assistant DA from Rollins’s office pushed to dismiss the cases.
In a Twitter thread last night, she vowed to “remedy” what she termed an “overstepping of his role” by Sinnott.
“At my request, prosecutors used the discretion constitutionally allocated to the executive branch to triage cases and use our resources most effectively to protect public safety,” Rollins wrote. “Make no mistake: some people were appropriately arraigned and will be held accountable for actions that put the safety of the public and law enforcement at risk. For those people now tangled in the criminal justice system for exercising their right to free speech—many of whom had no prior criminal record—I will use the legal process to remedy the judge’s overstepping of his role.”
Sinnott’s move was applauded by a leader of the Boston patrol officers’ union. Larry Calderone, vice president of the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association, told WBUR he “couldn’t be happier with” the judge’s rulings.
Former federal judge Nancy Gertner had a very different take on Sinnott’s actions. “The prosecutor is in complete charge of the charges that he or she wishes to bring or decline,” Gertner told WBUR. “The judge is doing something that is lawless.”
Rollins caused a stir during last year’s campaign for the open DA seat when she released a list of 15 lower-level offenses for which she said her default position would be not to prosecute.
Although the courtroom drama has been framed as a power play triggered by Rollins’s new approach, Calderone suggested her office was not acting differently than her predecessors, who he said often dismissed disorderly conduct charges. “This DA’s office is doing the same thing, but the judge on the bench has taken a different position,” he told the Globe.
Meanwhile, there continue to be questions about how the police handled the counter-demonstrators, including the use of pepper spray to disperse some of them. US Rep. Ayanna Pressley called for an “independent investigation” into how the scene was handled. Mayor Marty Walsh is walking a fine line on the issue. “Certainly we take any complaint about police misconduct seriously,” he told WBUR yesterday. But he went on to say it’s not yet clear what the full circumstances were that led to some of the charges of police overreaction. “You can’t get a full vision of what’s going on a 20-second clip on a video,” he said.
As the unusual courtroom fallout from the demonstrations came into view yesterday, pundits gravitated to predictable positions, though in one case it took a little bit of repositioning.Last night, DigBoston editor Chris Faraone had some fun tweeting out a 2017 Howie Carr column excoriating Gov. Charlie Baker for his hack appointment to the bench of Sinnott, whose wife is also a Boston judge. “It’s one thing to slurp at the trough, but this is licking the plate,” Carr wrote of the judicial twofer.
Fast forward two years, and with Sinnott’s hardline stance and dressing down of the lefty counter-protestors, he’s apparently gone from trough licking hack to the second coming of Louis Brandeis. “Gov. Charlie Baker got at least one judicial appointment right,” Carr writes today.