Defense attorney: Judge Sinnott ‘has no leg to stand on’

The band of right-wing provocateurs who staged a “straight pride” parade in Boston 10 days ago were hoping to stir the pot. But they likely never imagined that the tempest they’d cause would be a judicial showdown among local officials that exposes tensions set off by last year’s election of a reform-minded district attorney.

Things got unruly in the streets as the straight pride marchers were met by hundreds of counter-demonstrators, but there wasn’t exactly order in the court either when the cases of many of the three dozen counter-protesters who were arrested came before Boston Municipal Court Judge Richard Sinnott

Sinnott repeatedly, over the course of two days, rejected efforts by prosecutors to dismiss cases against those arrested for non-violent offenses of disorderly conduct or resisting arrest. (The DA’s office said it was pursuing cases against those charged with violent crimes, including assaulting police officers.) The problem: It’s not clear Sinnott is within his rights to do so, as charging decisions are generally the province of prosecutors. 

Susan Church, a well-known local defense lawyer, says Sinnott absolutely was out of bounds in refusing prosecutors’ efforts to drop charges against a young woman she was representing on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Church was so emphatic in that belief that she got into a testy exchange with Sinnott that ended with the Cambridge lawyer hauled out of court in handcuffs for contempt when Sinnott ordered her to stop making her argument but she persisted. 

“He has no leg to stand on,” Church said about Sinnott’s ruling on this week’s Codcast. Describing her experience of being handcuffed and held for several hours in the courthouse lock-up area as “surreal,” Church offered her account of what transpired in the courtroom. 

She said Sinnott would not allow her to complete her argument, in which she was citing cases, including a 1991 Supreme Judicial Court ruling, that made clear that prosecutors, as part of the executive branch of government, retain the complete right to press forward or drop charges in a case, with no role for the judiciary in that aspect of the proceedings. 

“As soon as I start reading those cases, he starts interrupting me,” said Church. 

A transcript of the proceedings shows Sinnott raising questions with her about the state’s victims’ rights statute, something Church insists isn’t germane to the issue at hand. He also warns her not to talk over him, and when she asks to finish reading a case citation, he says no. When she continues speaking, Sinnott orders her removed.

Church says things happened while she was detained that she can’t talk about because they may be the subject of further proceedings. She also charged that “even more will come out now” about Sinnott’s mistreatment of defendants in his courtroom.  

Well-known Boston area lawyer Wendy Murphy wrote in yesterday’s Herald that there’s no equal footing between attorneys and judges in a courtroom dispute. “It’s first-year law school stuff that in these verbal duels with the court, the lawyer has to cede to the judge,” Murphy wrote

It all made for a wild courtroom scene, but the tense standoff and hauling off of Church in handcuffs is just background to the real drama playing out. The showdown is over efforts by Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins to reset the office’s approach. Rollins has vowed to make the default position of her office not to prosecute a list of 15 lower-level offenses. It’s part of her pledge to loosen the grip she says ensnares too many people in the criminal justice system, saddling them with a record that makes it hard to land jobs and otherwise stay on a productive path. 

Boston police union leaders, who have already tangled repeatedly with Rollins, applauded Sinnott’s rulings to keep the cases going. Union vice president Larry Calderone suggested to reporters, however, that Rollins is not doing anything that different from her predecessors when it comes to handling arrests from demonstrations. That would seem to make the cases odd ones for a test of Rollins’s reform agenda. 

Although Murphy wrote in yesterday’s Herald that judges effectively are emperors in charge of their courtrooms, when it comes to the substance of what’s being argued, “It doesn’t mean the judge is right, and in my experience, the judges are often wrong.” 

On the question of whether Sinnott can block prosecutors from dropping charges, Church says Sinnott absolutely is wrong. (She points out that in her client’s case, the DA’s office filed a “nolle prosequi,” the Latin term for a notice they are dropping charges. It’s one of two ways prosecutors look to dismiss a case, and it’s the one, Church says, where the proscription of any role for the judge is most unequivocal.) 

Rollins was indignant at Sinnott’s moves, calling them “an unconstitutional abuse of his power.” She also pointed out that prosecutorial discretion is why Sinnott was never charged after being involved in a 1980 conflict in which he shot someone on City Hall Plaza. 

Rollins has petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn Sinnott’s ruling in one of the cases, a move she hopes will serve as a precedent for the others. 

In a sign of how upside down things have become from the longstanding status quo in Suffolk County, Church, an outspoken progressive defense lawyer, raved about the job Rollins is doing.

She also said she has confidence in what Justice Frank Gaziano, the single justice of the SJC assigned to consider the DA’s petition, will do because he’s a former prosecutor. 

“He’s a former prosecutor, and I think he will fully and 100 percent understand the law,” she said. “I haven’t met a prosecutor yet who sides with the judge in this case.”

MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

Gov. Charlie Baker, with revenues surging, proposes $175 million of tax relief. (State House News)

Rep. Christine Barber of Somerville and Sen. Jason Lewis of Winchester say strong legislative action is needed to rein in prescription drug costs. (CommonWealth)

A Beacon Hill committee will hear testimony tomorrow on a bill allowing drivers to designate their gender as “X” rather than male or female on licenses. (Boston Herald)

In a wide-ranging interview with WGBH’s Joe Mathieu, the governor explains his vision for transportation, housing, and education, hints at action on health policy this fall, anticipates more information about the state of natural gas infrastructure, and avoids presidential politics.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia II was charged with extorting money from marijuana vendors in a way that is raising concerns for regulators and lawmakers. Learn some of the names behind the numbers in the indictment. (CommonWealth) The City Council may consider everything from ousting Correia from office to changing the city charter to make a hired city manager the chief executive in charge of most municipal matters. (Boston Globe) The Cannabis Control Commission is reviewing the indictment, concerned about the integrity of the marijuana establishment licensing process. (Herald News) 

William “Buddy” Christopher, a top aide to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, is taking a leave of absence amid an investigation of the Zoning Board of Appeal, which is at the center of scandal over a $50,000 bribe to secure favorable treatment of a permitting case. (Boston Globe) Craig Galvin, a Dorchester real estate agent who sits on the board, abruptly resigned over the weekend. (Boston Globe) With the bribery scandal roiling Boston City Hall, the Bay State Banner pulls back the curtain on the insiders’ game that often rules the city’s wired world of development and permitting.

Northampton business owners are grappling with a downturn in foot traffic and they are trying to figure out what’s happening. Is it a lack of parking, people smoking pot, or something else? (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

People were told to disembark a ferry heading from the hurricane-ravaged Bahamas to Florida if they didn’t have a visa to enter the United States. (CNN)

ELECTIONS

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll shows US Rep. Joe Kennedy leading Sen. Ed Markey in a potential Democratic primary matchup for Senate by 9 points, 35-26. The margin grows to 14 points when likely primary voters are asked only about Kennedy and Markey and three lesser known candidates are not included. (Boston Globe) CommonWealth reported late last month on the first poll of a possible Markey-Kennedy race, an online poll conducted by Change Research that showed Kennedy with a 17-point lead, 42-25. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren trails other candidates among black voters in South Carolina, but she connected with the audience at a She the People gathering for women of color, and she often attends services at Roxbury’s 12th Baptist Church. (WBUR)

Before Warren waved off big-dollar fundraisers as part of her populist campaign for president, she banked millions of dollars on a fundraiser tear for her 2018 reelection campaign that included lots of exclusive events with big-money donors. (New York Times

Mark Sanford, the conservative former South Carolina governor and congressman, will join the small field of Republican challengers taking on President Trump in the presidential primaries, but his home state – along with Kansas and Nevada – won’t hold a Republican primary next year. (Associated Press)

Members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe looking to unseat their top executive officers in the tribe’s first recall election. Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell and Treasurer Gordon Harris are allegedly involved in financial malfeasance where more than $500 million is owed to the tribe’s financial backer, Genting Malaysia. (Cape Cod Times) 

Herald columnist Hillary Chabot floats the idea of Ayanna Pressley for mayor, taking Michelle Wu down a notch on the progressive scorecard to position Pressley as the lefty heavyweight who could take on Marty Walsh.

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

An expansive patch of asphalt adjacent to the terminal Riverside stop on the MBTA Green Line’s D branch seems ideal for building badly needed housing for Greater Boston. But Newton neighbors are not keen on the big transit-oriented development project being proposed. (Boston Globe)  

The Red Sox fire Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

Here’s the New Yorker article by Ronan Farrow that in no time over the weekend drew the resignation of of Joi Ito as head of MIT’s Media Lab over his dealings with Jeffrey Epstein. The saga should be a lesson to big institutions on accepting big donations from people with less than stellar backgrounds, says Larry Edelman. (Boston Globe) “[S]ome folks at MIT just couldn’t bring themselves to turn down big money, even if they needed a shower after accepting it,” he writes. 

Lowell middle school teacher Marisa Shea was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer during the straight pride parade protests, and now the school district is hoping to learn more about the incident. (Lowell Sun)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Edward M. Murphy says the reality of Medicare for All is not what you think. (CommonWealth)

Beth Israel Lahey Health will no longer offer a day treatment program for people suffering from addiction in Beverly, but the “growing patient population” will continue to be served at hospitals in Gloucester and Lynn. (Gloucester Daily Times)

ARTS/CULTURE

At Marshfield’s first Lobsterfest, locals were clawing for the crustacean, with participating surpassing organizers’ expectations. (Patriot Ledger) 

Dwarfism activist John Young gets an apology from the Zac Brown Band after the group allowed a tasteless skit mocking the condition as part of their recent Fenway Park show. (Media Nation) 

TRANSPORTATION 

Traffic, road construction, and the impact on park grass are some of the reasons why three big North Shore bicycle races won’t be happening this year. (Salem News)

CASINOS

Two leaders of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe are facing recall elections in connection with alleged financial mismanagement. The tribe is a big question mark in the debate over a southeastern Massachusetts casino. (Cape Cod Times)