Senate sides with judiciary, for now
Budget amendments to restore court authority over probation
In the power struggle over probation between the three branches of state government, the Massachusetts Senate is siding, at least for now, with the judiciary.
Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem of Newton, the chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said senators have agreed to approve budget amendments this week that would restore judicial oversight over probation, an agency that currently operates with unusual independence within the court system.
Creem said she filed amendments containing some of the changes last week, but support grew for even more action at a Senate caucus today. The caucus was held one day after the Supreme Judicial Court placed Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien on paid administrative leave and appointed a special counsel to investigate hiring practices at the agency. The court’s action was in response to a Boston Globe Spotlight Team story that portrayed probation as a “private employment agency for the well connected.”
Creem said senators agreed to impose a five-year term limit on the commissioner of probation. They also agreed to give Robert Mulligan, the trial court’s chief justice for administration and management, joint authority with the probation commissioner to hire, fire, discipline, and promote employees. Mulligan will also be given the power to transfer up to 5 percent of probation’s $160 million budget to other parts of the judiciary to cover budget shortfalls, Creem said.
Creem indicated the Senate was united on the issue. “They’re pretty angry today about the whole situation,” she said at a press conference near the Senate president’s office.
The amendments effectively undo a series of actions taken by the Legislature to insulate probation from judicial oversight. For example, the probation commissioner had a six-year term limit until 1993, five years before O’Brien took over the post. Creem said doing away with the term limit gave the commissioner a life-time appointment. Judicial oversight over probation hiring and spending was also removed by the Legislature in a series of budgets over the last several years.
Creem said she plans to also call for the creation of an 11-member task force headed by Attorney General Martha Coakley that will be charged with recommending whether probation belongs in the judiciary or should be moved to the executive branch, as Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed. Creem noted no legislators, who have been accused of using probation as a patronage haven, will serve on the task force although each chamber can appoint an expert member to the panel.
She declined comment on whether the Legislature’s tendency to micromanage the finances of probation and the courts violated the separation of powers between the three branches of government. “I am very supportive of an independent judiciary,” she said.
Readers who have information can contact Jack Sullivan at CommonWealth at email@example.com or call him at 617-224-1623.