Despite questions about her young age and lack of experience on the bench, the council that can confirm Gov. Maura Healey's nominee to the state's highest court had nothing but high praises for Elizabeth "Bessie" Dewar on Wednesday.
The Governor's Council's confirmation hearing for Dewar to join the Supreme Judicial Court kicked off with the governor lauding her nominee's work experiences, as well as her "engaging, welcoming and delighting" attitude and ability "building consensus."
"Bessie brings with her a fierce intelligence, a steadfast and unwavering dedication to justice in its most broad and inclusive form and a deep and nuanced understanding of the law and the court at its work. All of that has come through real experience in the courtroom," Healey said during the hearing in Gardner Auditorium.
The governor nominated Dewar to fill the SJC seat that Justice Elspeth Cypher is giving up when she retires on Jan. 12, 2024.
Dewar is the first person to be nominated for the SJC without already having been a judge in a lower court since Robert Cordy. A former federal prosecutor and top legal advisor to Gov. William Weld, Cordy was nominated by Gov. Paul Cellucci in 2000.
The nominee's lack of experience on the bench came up repeatedly Wednesday.
"It's a legitimate question that people have — I'm not the least bit concerned about your age, frankly, because your resume is years ahead of your age — so, please address the issue of not having sat on the bench," Governor's Councilor Eileen Duff asked Dewar.
Dewar responded that it was a fair question.
"I absolutely think it is crucial that the Supreme Judicial Court have a diversity of experience, and in particular, a diversity of experience with all the courts in the commonwealth. Every single one of them. And I would bring to the court — I have not served as a judge — but I would bring a lot of experience with the different courts of the commonwealth," Dewar said.
Healey in 2016 named Dewar to serve as Massachusetts's second state solicitor. In that role, Dewar supervises the briefing and arguing of appeals by attorneys throughout the attorney general's office, advises the AG on exercising her authority to decide whether to appeal from adverse decisions, and leads the office's "friend of the court" amicus brief practice in state and federal courts.
"Bessie was a trusted counselor advising me and our team on the most complicated legal issues that faced our office," Healey said Wednesday. "She supervised all of our office's critical appellate work, covering a range of legal questions that affect our state and overseeing both civil and criminal cases. She handled and argued some of the most complex and most important cases in our state's history."
Dewar previously worked as an appellate and trial-level lawyer at Ropes & Gray, was a civil rights advocate at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and served as a law clerk for Justice Stephen Breyer at the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge William Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and U.S. District Court Judge Louis Pollak. She is a graduate of Harvard College and the Yale Law School and has a master's degree from the University of Cambridge. She lives in Jamaica Plain.
Duff suggested that Dewar had worked on "every single level of the law."
"I have had the privilege to work on everything from administrative hearings ... all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. State and federal court, civil cases and criminal cases. So I have been so fortunate to have a wide array of experience," Dewar said.
And Dewar could apply that experience to the SJC for a long time, if confirmed. She is 43 years old and won't reach the state's mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 until July 4, 2050.
Councilor Terry Kennedy asked, "Why should I vote for someone who was three years old when I started practicing law?"
He quickly added, "I'm already voting for you, but answer the question."
Dewar responded, "Well I've been really, really busy in the 43 years since ... I thought about this question a lot myself, considering whether to apply for this opportunity that came up at this stage. And my conclusion was just that I thought I wanted to serve and that I would bring to the court a lot of relevant experience."
Answering a series of rapid-fire questions about her positions on certain policies, Dewar said that: Massachusetts has leading laws on protecting abortion rights and those rights will continue to be protected under the Massachusetts Constitution; courts and then state legislatures led the way to equal marriage for LGBTQ+ couples; and she does not personally support the death penalty, but if a case came up regarding it she would follow legislative and constitutional law.
Three governor's councilors explicitly said they planned to vote to confirm Dewar, and all others expressed their support for her and praised her resume. The council will likely vote on the confirmation next week.
Witnesses that Dewar brought to support her all mentioned the nominee's compassion and empathy in their testimony.
Partner at Ropes & Gray, Douglas Hallward-Driemeier, discussed a case he and Dewar worked on together challenging a Florida statute that restricted physicians' ability to speak with patients about "the dangers of guns in the home."
"Bessie has never treated the law as an academic exercise. She cares very much about the practical implications on the lives of young people," Hallward-Driemeier said. "This was a very important legal issue that we were raising, but Bessie knew that it was also deeply personal for them. They were actually taking a step of great courage to step up and be willing to be identified as the plaintiffs in this lawsuit."
Hallward-Driemeier identified other difficult issues that he said Dewar approached with compassion, including LGBTQ+ issues and advocating for students in Philadelphia being denied education.
He said, "I would never suggest or expect Bessie to allow her personal views to influence the outcomes in individual cases. But I believe that the quality of compassion and understanding the impact of cases on individuals is what makes for a really great justice."
Dewar said she believed judges should have the discretion to "consider all relevant facts and circumstances" around criminal defendants, including "their history and their family history and all the other relevant circumstances that might be relevant going into a sentence."
The other two witnesses she called forward were associate professor of law and urban planning at MIT Justin Steil and Gen Teixeira, the receptionist at the attorney general's office.
Advocate Patrick McCabe, a representative of the Fatherhood Coalition who maintains a website detailing Governor's Council business, was the only person who stepped forward to object to the nomination. McCabe argued that the Supreme Judicial Court has a bias against joint custody, though he didn't directly criticize Dewar.
Applications remain open to fill another pending vacancy on the SJC that will be created by Justice David Lowy's resignation in February.
The Supreme Judicial Court Nominating Commission, which recommended Dewar, is also processing potential nominees to replace Lowy and is "working as diligently as possible" to make a selection, a Healey spokesperson said. The spokesperson couldn't say whether that recommendation would come ahead of Lowy stepping down.