Bonin, key player in court struggle, dies at 90

Short stint as chief justice was focus of Aloisi book

ROBERT M. BONIN, who lost his job as chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1978 for attending a lecture by author Gore Vidal, died on Monday at the age of 90.

His obituary details his distinguished background – Boston Latin School, Boston University, BU Law School, service in the Army JAG Corps, respected trial attorney, first assistant to former Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti, chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, followed by more private legal work up until his retirement at age 88.

What the resume dump doesn’t reveal is that Bonin was the focal point of one of the great political struggles in Massachusetts history. He was named chief justice by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1977 to implement reforms and ultimately shake things up in the court system, which didn’t take kindly to his appointment. Previous chief justices had always come from the ranks of the court’s judges, but Bonin parachuted in from Bellotti’s office. He was not welcomed, and ultimately was forced to resign in 1978.

James Aloisi, the former secretary of transportation and a frequent contributor to CommonWealth, wrote a book about Bonin in 2011 entitled The Vidal Lecture: Sex and Politics in Massachu­setts and the Persecution of Chief Justice Robert Bonin. In a precede to an excerpt from the book that ran in CommonWealth, Aloisi said Bonin was unprepared for the attacks on him and the complicity of the Boston news media in those attacks.

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,” Aloisi wrote.

Bonin insisted he went to hear Vidal lecture and didn’t know the purpose of the event, but his appearance at a fundraiser for the 24 men facing Superior Court trials was his undoing.  He was censured by the Supreme Judicial Court, the Legislature approved a resolution calling for his removal, and the Governor’s Council voted to withhold his $800-a-week salary.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

In his resignation letter to Dukakis, Bonin said his reputation “may have been damaged”: but “my integrity is intact.”

More than 30 years later, in a Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly package of stories related to the release of Aloisi’s book, Bonin indicated he hadn’t changed his view. “I deny being a revanchist looking to even old scores,” he wrote. “I ‘hold fast my righteousness…my heart does not reproach me.’”