The Bonin story

The political persecution of a chief justice and the lessons for today.

it is no small irony that history, which is the study of the past, may also be the best pathway to understanding current events and anticipating the future. It is with that perspective that I wrote The Vidal Lecture: Sex and Politics in Massachu­setts and the Persecution of Chief Justice Robert Bonin (Chilmark/Ashburton Hill, 2011). I was a student at Boston College Law School at the time the events in the book took place, and I knew many of the people who figure in the drama. It is, I believe, an important story, and one that needs to be told and remembered because it casts light on how people behave, and how they are treated, in the public arena.

The Vidal Lecture recounts the struggle between older power brokers and younger progressives in the 1970s—a struggle that led to the forced resignation of the Chief Justice of the Superior Court, Robert Bonin. Gov. Michael Dukakis, who appointed Bonin, introduced a broad and unprecedented court reform program as one part of his effort to clean up and improve state government. Court reform was designed to take a poorly organized and highly political court system and make it more efficient. Delays and inefficiencies in the Superior Court system had reached crisis proportions, and Dukakis appointed a committee led by the highly regarded Harvard Law School professor Archibald Cox to make specific reform recommendations. The Cox Committee warned that without a reorganization of the judicial system, a “breakdown of justice” was imminent.

Robert Bonin was selected as chief justice to administer this ambitious court reform initiative. But the guardians of the status quo were reluctant to accept reform, and they were determined to stop, or at least hinder, its implementation. The method they chose to frustrate court reform, and politically damage its chief proponent, Gov. Dukakis, was to take down the new chief justice.

Bonin was known as a brilliant lawyer (then-Attorney General Frank Bellotti called him the “smartest guy I ever met”), but he was unprepared for the ungracious and often ferocious attacks on him as the old guard responded to his appointment. Bonin was equally unprepared to manage a Boston media that was too often complicit with the agenda of the old guard, or too easily manipulated to build a narrative antagonistic to Bonin. Bonin surely made his share of mistakes, but the pretext for his re­moval—his attendance at a lecture given by Gore Vidal, which also was a fund­raiser for a group raising money to defend 24 men against sodomy and statutory rape charges—had almost no precedent in Massa­chusetts law.

As I say in the book, beginning with Bonin’s appointment as chief justice in 1977, “a determined, entrenched legal and political establishment embarked on an unrelenting effort to remove him from office. Their ultimately successful effort was one important victory in a war between cultures and generations…[the] forces that converged to create such a tumultuous political moment were complex and deep-rooted, and they illuminated much about what Boston had been, and what it would become.”

I did not know when I began writing this book in the 1990s that many elements of Bonin’s story would find themselves repeated during my tenure as the state’s Transportation Secretary in the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick. I was asked by the governor to craft and shepherd into law a massive transportation reform bill—something I did, with the scars to prove it. Like court reform in the 1970s, transportation reform in 2009 posed a serious threat to the status quo, particularly as it re­quired some tough medicine to ensure its success. For example, provisions that would have raised revenue to eliminate the wasteful practice of paying highway department employees from the capital budget (basically paying salaries using borrowed money) fell by the wayside as legislative leaders once again deferred on the difficult issues. This watering down of substantial, meaningful change served no larger public interest, and the result was a reform measure that is a weak and pallid version of the bill the governor and I first proposed in early 2009.

Unlike Bonin, I was not perceived as an outsider, but as the “ultimate insider.” The facts belied that superficial assessment. I certainly wasn’t treated by the Legislature as an insider, as many of my presumed allies beat a hasty retreat when I asked them to support a 19-cent gas tax increase. And I certainly didn’t behave as an insider, as I took on the business-as-usual approach to policymaking by calling things as I saw them. When I publicly called out the “reform before revenue” slogan as the misguided sound bite that it was, I was scorned for “mocking” Senate Presi­dent Therese Murray’s position. Of course, I would have been crazy to mock her—and I wasn’t. I was simply calling a spade a spade, but candor in such circumstances is not rewarded. Nor is it politically expedient. I might have balanced my inclination to candor with a more nuanced approach to the urgent issues presented to me. Our current state transportation funding woes sadly confirm that what I said was right, but being right in retrospect doesn’t really matter if the problem doesn’t ever get fixed (history teaches us that, as well).

Will future leaders learn from Bob Bonin’s story? Will they learn from my experience? Or, as is perhaps more likely, will they think that their circumstances are unique, their skills more advanced? The Vidal Lecture will, I hope, remind people of an important chapter in the Common­wealth’s history, and provide future leaders with a cautionary tale of how difficult it is to reform the status quo. Here is an excerpt from the book.

Chapter 3: The New Chief Justice

Michael Dukakis set a high standard as he considered who he would choose to replace Walter McLaughlin as Superior Court chief justice. The successful candidate would need to have a strong reputation for legal competence and administrative ability, while sharing Dukakis’s commitment to court reform. First Assistant Attorney General Robert Bonin fit the bill in a fundamental way. He was young, progressive, smart, and independent of the established judiciary.

The governor’s legal counsel, Dan Taylor, recalled that he had “heard nothing but good news about Bonin. He was ready, willing, and able.” Taylor had worked closely with Bonin on a number of matters, and respected the latter’s legal ability. Taylor viewed the potential for a Bonin appointment as a “unique opportunity. If you didn’t get a person who was really going to do it [implement court reform], it would all be for naught.”

Dukakis observed Bonin’s performance as first assistant and “was very impressed.” Dukakis recalled that Bonin “was obviously very smart, very hard working. He was clearly committed to change, reform, and modernizing the court system.” Tom Kiley recalled that “Bob was picked precisely because he was an outsider and to bring the administrative skills [to the court] that were thought to be lacking.” [Kiley, a protégé of Attorney General Francis Bellotti, succeeded Bonin as First Assistant Attorney Gen­eral.] After several conversations, and carrying the imprimatur of Bellotti’s endorsement, Dukakis assured himself that Bob Bonin was the person best able to undertake the challenge. The decision was made.


Robert and Angela Bonin kiss after the judge’s nomination is approved. Former
Attorney General Frank Bellotti lights up a victory cigar. Photo by Michael Anderson.

Bonin served as first assistant attorney general from January 1975 until March 1977, when he was appointed chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court by Duk­akis. It was only the third time in the Superior Court’s 118-year history that its chief justice was not selected from among the ranks of the sitting associate judges. Bonin had taken the post of first assistant attorney general with the hope that it would lead to bigger, better things, and now, just two years later, he was the governor’s choice to lead the state’s trial court system into a new reform-minded era.

Dukakis’s choice represented a bold move: the selection of this young, liberal lawyer with limited experience in public service may have seemed unorthodox, but the challenge ahead was large, and the governor wanted to select a person with strong legal skills who would also have no ties to the entrenched judicial establishment. Bonin’s appointment was the foundation stone upon which Dukakis planned to build a historic effort to reform the state’s court system. Announcing the Bonin nomination on January 19, 1977, Dukakis said that those “who know Mr. Bonin ad­mire his integrity, brilliant legal mind, rare leadership qualities, fair and even temperament, and demonstrated capacity for administration.”

Bob Bonin did not pause to give the governor’s offer a second thought, but Angela Bonin had her reservations. As she later expressed them: “Politics is invasive. If you are chief justice, you can never walk away from it. We were newly married, had been married a couple of years, we were having a life, and I didn’t want that to change.” Angela Bonin could not have imagined how much change was in store for her and her new husband.

Outgoing Chief Justice McLaughlin was furious that Dukakis would dare appoint someone from outside the court system who was publicly committed to implementing the Cox Committee court reform recommendations. He launched a powerful and unprecedented public attack against Bonin’s appointment. Characterizing the governor’s selection of Bonin as a “grievous mistake” and “insult to the court,” McLaughlin alleged that “the governor in one fell swoop has destroyed the morale of the court and has openly insulted each of the 45 judges on the court.” Referring to Bonin as a “stranger,” McLaughlin complained that it would take the nominee “at least two years to find out how the court operates.”

The old chief’s views were rooted in a burning animosity toward Dukakis, one that had both personal and political overtones. The governor’s refusal to reappoint his brother, Richard McLaughlin, as registrar of motor vehicles was personal. The chief justice had called Dukakis to lobby for his brother’s reappointment, but the new governor “thought that was inappropriate” and refused to accommodate McLaughlin. “I was in to clean house and certainly wasn’t going to reappoint folks.”

McLaughlin’s world was being threatened by a reform governor: who or what would be next? The Superior Court was a closed society of established customs and protocols where seniority was very important and, in many cases, where fathers reared their sons. McLaughlin’s son, Walter Jr., was the prime force behind the city’s largest and most popular bar review course, “SMH”—the intensive, 10-week course that nearly every third-year law student hoping to practice in Massachusetts enrolled in to prepare for the bar examination.

The younger McLaughlin represented a variety of notable clients, including the City of Boston, and had no compunction about appearing in Suffolk Motion Session to plead a case for a client, where a portrait of his father, the chief justice of the Superior Court, hung directly above the presiding judge. It was common practice for judges, courthouse officials, and political leaders to have children working in the DA’s office, and while no rule or law prohibited this, it was viewed by some as unseemly and inappropriate. Such was the way business was conducted in the Superior Court of Suffolk County, and the idea that this system was changing, that new leadership not beholden or responsive to the established traditions was now in place, did not sit well with many.

Respected Boston Globe columnist Robert Healy exposed the motives informing the antagonism toward Bonin’s nomination. “The courthouse has become one of the state’s last real sources of patronage,” wrote Healy. “The Cox Commission report cuts into this. There would be centralized budgetary and personnel policies…all this is threatening to the old guard at the courthouse. And Bonin has become the point man in this controversy.”

McLaughlin’s reaction to the Bonin nomination was also a reflection of his strong belief that the only opportunity for advancement for a talented Superior Court judge was the prospect of promotion to the position of chief justice. “I had so many judges in my court who were so capable of being chief justice that I thought it was wrong for Dukakis to make it a political football and pick somebody from outside the court. And I said so at the time, and I affirm it now.”

This view, while strongly held, ran contrary to the facts. Several Superior Court judges had found their way to the appeals court, and to the state’s highest court. But McLaughlin held firmly to the belief that these judges “take the job at a financial sacrifice, there is only one area of promotion—chief justice.” He noted that seven or eight judges were members of the exclusive American Association of Trial Lawyers, a distinction among members of the bar reserved for the best trial lawyers. “The only thing they had to look forward to was … the honor of being chief justice of the court.” This was rich coming from McLaughlin, who himself had leap-frogged over other jurists with greater seniority when he was named chief justice after serving a mere three years on the bench.

McLaughlin’s rage drove him to increasingly intemperate remarks. He accused Dukakis of having chosen Bonin as the result of a “deal” with Bellotti in return for the attorney general’s support of the court reform bill. Bellotti came quickly and firmly to Bonin’s defense. “If anyone is damaging the morale of the Superior Court judges,” said the attorney general, “it is McLaughlin.” Bellotti dismissed McLaughlin’s charge that he and Dukakis had cut a court reform deal over the Bonin appointment. Dukakis was simply “not that kind of man,” said Bellotti.

Years later, Dukakis would dismiss the accusation with a laugh. “If there is one lesson I’ve learned,” said the one-time presidential nominee, “is that you simply don’t question people’s motives.” Even Boston Globe columnist David Farrell, not known to be a friend of the governor’s, felt compelled to remind his readers that Dukakis “has his faults, but they do not include wheeling and dealing.”

McLaughlin’s harsh words provoked a loose coalition of leaders in the legal and political community to attempt to derail the nomination. Tom Burns, the trial lawyer who had been critical of the Cox Committee, resigned from his post as chair of the joint bar association committee on judicial recommendations as a protest against the Bonin nomination, which he described as “unsuitable.” Burns was at least candid enough to link his opposition to Bonin to the Dukakis court reform initiative. “It is my certain belief,” said Burns, “that the proposed candidate [Bonin] is a creature of, and must be committed to, the Cox report.”

After his nomination, Bonin called McLaughlin and asked for a meeting. The two men met, “and it was a cold and distant meeting. He did not welcome me,” recalled Bonin. “I said to him, ‘I understand your views [against me], but having received the nomination I’m going to take the job, and I came up here to speak to you as your prospective successor.’ He did not wish me well or make nice.”

Then the courthouse insiders weighed in, through Boston Globe courthouse reporter Joseph Harvey. The Boston Globe was now the city’s newspaper of record, having outlasted most of the significant competition. When the venerable Boston Herald proved no longer financially viable and merged with the tabloid Record American, the Globe found itself the city’s only “serious” newspaper. Under the leadership of Editor Thomas Winship, the Globe made significant strides to improve its quality and vibrancy, but the paper had a schizophrenic aspect, nurturing young, aggressive reporters while sustaining a stable of older reporters with good connections and few scruples about letting opinion, or a personal agenda, creep into the news. J. Anthony Lukas in his panoramic portrayal of the city in the 1970s, aptly described the Globe as an “obsessively political” news outlet that “consistently overvalued opinion and undervalued fact.”

Joe Harvey was the epitome of the Globe’s old guard. Harvey had been the Globe court reporter since 1950, and it was said of him that he “knew the Suffolk County Courthouse inside and out—better than many of the judges there. When you wanted to know what was going on, Joe was the person you called.”

Harvey did not make reporting for the Globe his sole profession. He maintained an active law practice during the years he served as the Globe’s courthouse reporter, something that would appear to have been a conflict of interest. Moreover, Harvey’s reporting over the years had made him, in the eyes of prominent criminal defense lawyer Harvey Silverglate, a “virtual adjunct to the district attorney’s office.”

Against the plain evidence of the Cox Committee findings, Harvey had previously reported that McLaughlin had “distinguished himself as a…most successful court administrator.” Harvey now weighed in with a series of articles antagonistic to Bob Bonin. Harvey disclosed that Bonin had provided incorrect information on a questionnaire filled out as part of the judicial nominating process. The inaccuracies related to Bonin’s disclosure that he had been arrested as a 16-year-old for disturbing the peace, when in fact he was 18 at the time. Bonin also failed to report several cases in which he sued former clients for the recovery of legal fees. These were minor indiscretions, but the Globe gave Harvey’s story prominent “page one” play in its Sunday edition on February 20.

Harvey’s reporting did not change the recommendation of the governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission, and provoked Joseph Bartlett, the president of the Boston Bar Association, to characterize the effort to embarrass Bonin as a “witch hunt” and declare that “I don’t even know Bonin, and I’m outraged by the Globe’s conduct.”

The stakes were high. One Globe columnist declared that “not in recent years has a nomination been so bitterly fought by the courthouse crowd.” Judge Dermot Meag­her, whose father John was the senior associate justice in the Superior Court, recalled years later that the “perception was that all the others were insiders, and Bonin was an outsider coming as a reformer. So if he’s coming as a re­former there must be something wrong with them. Who’s he going to reform—right? That’s not a very pleasant way to come in.”

WBZ television and radio broadcast an editorial by its highly respected editorial director, Harry Durning, that was supportive of the Bonin nomination, declaring that a “completely phony issue was raised about the fact the new chief is to come from outside the ranks of present Superior Court justices.” WBZ found that Bonin had “the will and the skill” to implement court reform improvements, and as such was “an excellent choice” whose nomination “should be quickly approved.”

The Globe editorial page took note of “Mr. Bonin’s oversights,” explaining that “it would have been better had Bonin dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s [because] there is a good deal of political-judicial jealousy involved in this highly important post and any mistakes on the record are likely to be taken advantage of by those who would rather see somebody else holding it.” The Globe failed to endorse Bonin’s nomination, but recognized his “good record as a professor of law, trial lawyer, and first assistant attorney general.”

In the end, the anti-Bonin tactics were unsuccessful. Dukakis stuck by his nominee, viewing the flap over Bonin’s youthful indiscretions as “kind of silly, so we pushed [the nomination] hard.” On the day of the hearing before the governor’s Executive Council, Dukakis and Bellotti pulled out all the stops to assure Bonin’s nomination. Bellotti himself appeared at the confirmation hearing, along with two other Superior Court judges and several district attorneys [but not Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne] to support Bonin. Dukakis had also made it known that in his view, the “controversy of recent days [was] in essence a controversy over far-reaching court reform proposals.”

Bonin’s nomination was approved on March 2, 1977, by the state’s Executive Council with only one member in opposition, Herb Connolly, who may have been unable to resist opposing the hand-picked choice of his old political foe Bellotti. The Herald American’s award-winning photographer, Mike Andersen, captured the moment of victory with an iconic photograph of Bob and Angela Bonin locked in a kiss, while Frank Bellotti stood off to the side contentedly smoking a large cigar.

The next day the Globe’s editor, Thomas Winship, sent a handwritten note to Bonin, “just to tell you how disturbed I was with the play and handling of your nomination by the Globe.” Winship had been out of town during the coverage, and declared that “The p.1 stories were not the Globe we all know.”

The brief, bitter episode was an ominous beginning for Bonin, who kept his silence and let the moment pass. The Boston Herald American, in an observation not lost on his enemies, noted that, at age 45, Bonin “could hold the position of chief justice for the next 25 years.”

Meet the Author

Bob Bonin, soon to be one of the most powerful men in the Massachusetts court system, was in the words of the Boston Globe a “judicial unknown.” He would not remain so for long.

James Aloisi was secretary of transportation in 2009 and currently works at AECOM Corp.