Interview with Jen Caissie, candidate for Governor’s Council

Jennie L. Caissie announced her candidacy for the Massachusetts Governor’s Council seat for the Seventh District.   Caissie is an attorney with the Michael Caplette Law Office in Southbridge, MA. Caissie is also a part-time Special Prosecutor for the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office in Worcester County. This site contains more information about her.

Cassie was kind enough to respond to my questions.  As with my interview with Francis Ford, some of my questions were inspired by the Boston Phoenix article “Meet Your Massachusetts Governor’s Council“, written by Chris Faraone, which heavily criticizes many aspects of the governor’s council.  I highly recommend you read it as well.

And — once again — this humble blogger would like to thank both candidates for being so great about responding to her questions.

There is a perception in the media that members of the governor’s council tend to have poor meeting attendance.  Do you plan on attending every meeting of the Governor’s Council? Since you will likely continue working outside of the part-time council commitment, will you make sure that your other work does not impact the time you need to spend on council business?

Yes, I intend to attend every meeting.  In addition, I will keep the people in my District informed of my attendance.  As a current Selectman in Oxford for 10 years and Chairwoman for the last 5, I am very proud of my attendance record. Likewise, as a Trustee at Worcester State College from 2002 to 2006, my attendance record was excellent.  As an elected representative, I understand that I will be people’s voice on the Council.  I will be committed to attending the meetings, showing up prepared and ready to ask the tough questions and to do the best job I can do for the people.   

As far as managing my schedule to ensure I do the job as a member of the Governor’s Council, the ability basically boils down to desire and commitment.  I started my public service as a Selectwoman at age 23, during that time I was studying for the Massachusetts Bar Exam, enrolled in an MBA program at Nichols College in Dudley, MA,  a graduate assistant at Nichols College, an assistant Women’s Basketball Coach at Nichols College and working part-time at a law firm.  This is the type of time management schedule I am accustomed to and enjoy.  As a public servant, I am often called upon to attend several events outside of the weekly obligations of Selectmen meetings. For me, representing my constituents and community means more than just showing up at meetings.  It means showing up prepared and ready to work hard for the people who trust you to do the job. Unless you are prepared for a meeting and ready to work, there is no sense in showing up. 

There has also been criticism that the Governor’s Council rubber-stamps judicial nominees.  Since the Judicial Nominating Committee (JNC) already looks into those nominees, what does the Governor’s Council bring to the judicial appointment process that the JNC does not?

The “rubber-stamp” criticism is not unique to the Governor’s Council.  People in Massachusetts and throughout the country believe their government and elected officials are ignoring the will of the people. 

The Governor’s Council has been dominated by one party rule for nearly two decades.  One party rule, no matter what party it is, does not work for or serve the public interest.  Judicial appointments become less about the selection of the best qualified candidates and more about the politics deals of the one party rule.  So it is understandable where and how the “rubber-stamp” label came to be.  Let’s face it, in Massachusetts, we have been overwhelmingly dominated by one party rule.  So much so, that I do not need to name the party.  Take the party affiliations out of it, and know that all eight (8) members of the Governor’s Council, which is the people’s direct voice in the judicial selection process, have been from the same political party since 1992.  The “rubber-stamp” criticism may be an inevitable and natural result of that fact, no matter how altruistic the members have been in their deliberations. 

Whether the criticism of the Governor’s Council is well founded or not, the Council has a public relations problem and they need to make the judicial confirmation hearings more accessible to the public, not just to those with the luxury of driving to Boston to watch a hearing, or for those asked to testify at a hearing.  The hearings should be available through some media outlet, or at a minimum the transcripts put online, so the public can see who is asking the types of questions people want asked of candidates for judgeships before they are confirmed. 

The Council, if operating as intended, serves an important purpose that the JNC does not.  The Council is elected by the people in the eight districts throughout the Commonwealth.  That is the accountability arm of the process that is so critical to ensure the judicial approval process is conducted with integrity.  The JNC is appointed, not elected.  Symbolically, the elected members of the Governor’s Council are the peoples’ guardians at the gates of justice, whether criminal or civil.  The Council members are supposed to work hard to ensure the best, most qualified people are appointed to be judges and that they are asking the types of questions that matter to people in their daily lives.

One of the functions of the Governor’s Council is to advise the governor on pardons and commutations of sentences.  What are the circumstances under which a pardon or commutation is justified?  What do you think the role of parole is, especially in the case of commutation?

It is difficult to speculate as to what, if any, circumstances, in which a pardon or commutation would be appropriate.  The victim’s or victims’ would be first and foremost in my mind and consideration.  A request for a commutation of a criminal offense to a lesser offense is one that I would greatly scrutinize.  Further, if the offense involved a violent act, or one against a child or disabled person, or one in which a person was injured or killed, it is very unlikely I would support a commutation, or a pardon for that matter.  The sentiments of the victims and their families would weigh heavily in my decision.

In the Telegram and Gazette, you talked about the “need for conscientious judges when it comes to public safety.”  Are you referring to any prior appointments that you would have opposed? If so, which ones?

Hindsight is 20/20 and I do not play Monday morning quarterback.  I will tell you that a priority of mine will be to ask tough questions during confirmation hearings, particularly in the areas of victims’ rights, criminal sentencing for violent crimes, and especially those involving children.  I will ask candidates questions that disclose their real feelings about victims’ rights.  Nobody gets it right all the time, but when it comes to approving judges, we need to get it right most of the time. 

I want to be clear that my passion about public safety and fundamental fairness when it comes to victims’ rights is something I have cared about long before I thought about running for Governor’s Council.  My law article “Passing the Victims’ Rights Amendment: A Nation’s March Towards A More Perfect Union” was written and published over ten years ago. 

Regarding the same quote, what are the items pertaining to public safety you think judges should consider?

Many people feel that our justice system is out of balance and that innocent people and victims’ rights are not protected.  As a member of the Council, I will ask questions of judicial candidates to determine whether they are sensitive to victims’ rights, especially those of children and the disability.  I am looking for candidates who will render decisions that err on the side of public safety. 

I think candidates should be asked questions that reveal their real feelings about victims’ rights.

You also said that “anyone who serves as a councilor should have criminal law experience.”  Do you mean as a prosecutor or as a defense attorney?

I work as a special prosecutor on select cases and in private practice as a defense attorney.  Having criminal law experience from both sides of the coin is important and it serves the public interest.  The Council approves district and superior court judges who will decide criminal law issues everyday they are on the bench.  They will be deciding criminal sentences, bail issues and other matters that directly impact the public.  In addition, the Council votes on commutations of criminal sentences and pardons.  It is hard to imagine being a member of the Governor’s Council without any experience in criminal law.  How would you know what qualifications are appropriate for a person who is being considered for a district court or superior court judgeship?  These folks will be dealing with criminal law issues on a daily basis.  How do you know what to ask them to ensure they are properly qualified, or do not hold extreme views on the rights of criminal defendants that could compromise public safety and the innocent public?  If you have not practiced criminal law, either as a defense attorney, or as a prosecutor, you will have no idea what questions to ask, or what significance to put on the candidate’s answers.

Further, a significant portion of the trial court budget is allocated to criminal law issues.  Taxpayers have a right to demand competent candidates are approved for judgeships, not politically connected ones.

The Governor’s Council also advises on the appointment and removal of notaries public and justices of the peace.  Are you either a notary or a justice of the peace, and do you consider it a conflict if you are one and would also serve on the Council?

I am a notary public.  No I do not consider it a conflict of interest.  I do not charge for my notary services and never have.  It is a service we offer to people in our community.  Helping people out by notarizing a document is a public service.  I believe it is a position of public trust that must be taken seriously.  There have been a number of circumstances where I have heard about notaries public failing to perform their duties properly.  While this is rare, it compromises the integrity of our entire system.  It can not be tolerated in a single instance and removing dishonest notaries public will better protect the public trust.  If a notary compromises their position, I will vote to remove them.  Zero tolerance.  

Why would you like to be on the Governor’s Council?

It is an incredibly important position that affects everyone in some way.  The hardworking taxpayers of Massachusetts deserve a representative who will work as hard as possible to ensure the best men and women are selected to fill the judgeships in Massachusetts.  I will intensely scrutinize any requests for pardons and commutations of sentences.  I will not compromise on my values because of political pressure or to gain political favor with anyone, or any political party. 

People have had it with the good ole boy politics and backroom deals.  They want their elected officials to do the right thing and to speak to them openly and honestly.  The people do not want elected officials who are bought and paid for, or so politically connected that they are “rubber-stamps.”  (It is not hard to figure out why or where that expression came to be.)  The public has an obvious desire and need for new blood, new ideas and fresh perspective.  The people are fed up with the lack of accountability and transparency that has come from the arrogance of our rinse-repeat-rinse-repeat politicians. It is time for some fresh air in all branches of our government.  I am 36 years old with no connections to the Council, or to political factions or politicians, I want to be an independent voice and breath of fresh air on the Governor’s Council.     

If elected councilor, what specific ways would you inform the public about what the Governor’s Council does?

 In this age of technology, the public should know how and why their elected officials vote on matters.  I would first consult with an IT person and try to lobby for a website which was interactive and informative.  In addition, there should be some coverage of the confirmation hearings, not just for those with the privilege or resources to attend the hearings. I will consider started my own blog to provide for coverage of the hearings.  Turning cameras on should not be ruled out either.  It has been my experience that when the cameras are turned on, attendance improves, the level of respect improves, the quality of the hearings improves because people have to show up, on time and prepared. 

There is much that can be done, effectively and efficiently to keep the public, whom we are elected to serve, informed of what we are doing.  It is all about accountability and transparency.  People pay for government with their hard earned tax dollars. People want accountability and transparency and they deserve both.

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Interview with Francis Ford, candidate for Governor’s Council

Francis Ford recently announced his intention to run for the Massachusetts Governor’s Council seat for the Seventh District.  Ford is an attorney at the law firm of Fletcher, Tilton, & Whipple.  He also serves as town moderator for the Town of Paxton.  He previously served four years as  Clerk of Courts and Magistrate for Worcester County; this website contains more biographical information.

Ford was kind enough to respond to my questions.  Some of my questions were inspired by the Boston Phoenix article “Meet Your Massachusetts Governor’s Council“, written by Chris Faraone, which heavily criticizes many aspects of the governor’s council. Ford read that article before responding to my questions; I highly recommend you read it as well.

There is a perception in the media that members of the governor’s council tend to have poor meeting attendance.  Do you plan on attending every meeting of the governor’s council?  Since you will likely continue working outside of the part-time council commitment, will you make sure that your other work does not impact the time you need to spend on council business?

Yes, I not only “plan on attending every meeting of the Governor’s Council” I WILL, in fact, attend every meeting.  I am a firm believer that when one undertakes to do something you either do it all the way or do not do it at all.  The best thing I can use as an example is my just completed eight years of service on the Board (two as President) of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation.  The MBF meetings are held in Boston with the rare exception of once or twice a year when we meet in other areas of the state.  Although the meetings were at night, after a full day of work, I made every meeting or had a very good excuse for the ones I did not make.  (Sick or away, etc., but the ones I missed were few and very far between.)

Yes, I will make sure that my work outside of the Council does not impact the time I will spend on Council business.  I am running for this position because I want to do the job and that is exactly what I will do. I have also made this clear in my discussions with the Management Team at my law firm. I would not seek the office if I did not intend to do the work.  I like work and I have liked it ever since my first job at age 13, sweeping up the Spencer Dairy Queen’s parking lot and cleaning its bathrooms.

There has also been criticism that the Governor’s Council rubber-stamps judicial nominees.  Since the Judicial Nominating Committee (JNC) already looks into those nominees, what does the Governor’s Council bring to the judicial appointment process that the JNC does not?

I am aware of the criticism that the G.C. “rubber-stamps” judicial nominees and that it is a duplication of the efforts of the JNC.  I disagree.  I have attended many Governor’s Council meetings, usually as a representative of the Worcester County Bar Association or as a “witness” for a nominee.  In my experience, the G.C. is far from a “rubber stamp.”  The most famous illustration I can provide is when Margaret Marshall was nominated to be the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  The Governor’s Council hearing was so well-attended and received so much testimony that the Hearing itself had to be moved from the small room the Council usually occupies to the Gardner Auditorium at the State House. I recall because I was there and I testified in favor of confirming Margaret Marshall Chief Justice of the SJC, the first (and only, so far) woman to hold that post.  The hearing was contentious and despite the fact that now Chief Justice Marshall was then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and had been highly recommended by the JNC, the Governor’s Council appeared ready to “not confirm” her nomination.  Ultimately, of course, she was confirmed and I believe that the testimony heard by the Governor’s Council was important and contributed to the process.

Less germane to your question, but equally important, is the fact that the Governor’s Council is a “Constitutional Body” and, other than the Governor himself or herself, it is the only ELECTED body to have a say on Judicial nominations.  I think this is important as it provides the citizens with an opportunity to have their voices heard with regards to Judicial nominations. As you know, other states “elect” their judges.  Given that we do not, I feel it is important to at least have representatives, elected by the people, stand between the nomination and the confirmation of a Judicial candidate.  The Judicial Nomination Committee, of course, is not elected by the people nor does it answer to us.

One of the functions of the Governor’s Council is to advise the governor on pardons and commutations of sentences.  What are the circumstances under which a pardon or a commutation is justified?  What do you think the role of parole is, especially in the case of a commutation?

I do not want to say “Never,” but I cannot think of too many situations where a pardon or commutation of a sentence is going to be justified.  I would look very closely at any such request from the Governor.  I believe that one of the considerations that make not having a death penalty acceptable to some is that when one is convicted of a heinous crime, take murder, for example, “life in prison” has to mean “life in prison.”  I regularly sat two rows behind Paxton’s Police Chief Bobby Mortell in church on Saturday nights and I will never forget what it was like when he was killed.  The guilty parties received “life in prison” and, in my opinion, that is what they should serve.  Bob is not coming home and neither should the ones who took him from his wife and children.

We also talk about “Truth in sentencing” in Massachusetts and that means that we tell the victims of crimes that the number of years the defendant receives (usually as a result of a plea agreement) is the number of years he or she is to serve.  I do not think it is fair to victims to tell them one thing when they are at the courthouse and the defendant is about to plead guilty and then tell them some years later, “Oh, he’s been in long enough, don’t you agree?”  I do not agree.  I think we have made a “compact” with the victims when we talk about the sentencing of the defendants who violated them and we should honor that compact.

As for the third part of your question, in those rare instances, and I mean “very rare, if ever” when someone has his or her sentence commuted, I think his or her parole officer must remain very much involved in that person’s daily life.  And I do mean “daily.”  A phone call now and then will not suffice, in my opinion.

One of the criticisms specifically lobbed at you in the telegram.com comments was that your position as a lawyer would somehow compromise a role as governor’s councilor (or vice versa).  What do you think a lawyer can bring to the governor’s council that a non-lawyer cannot?  What do you think your experience as Clerk of Courts adds?

Four of the current Eight Governor’s Councillors are lawyers.  Of the remaining four, one is a Town Councillor, one is a retired state employee, another is a real estate broker and our own, Tom Foley, is a former Colonel of the Massachusetts State Police.  I think they all bring something to the table in their own ways.  With reference to whether or not my position as a lawyer would somehow “compromise my role as a Governor’s Councillor” or my job as a “Governor’s Councillor” would somehow compromise my role as a lawyer I have a ready answer:  I have pledged, and I repeat it to you here, that I will NEVER appear before a person who became a judge or a clerk while I was on the Governor’s Council.  It is easy, really.  There are many judges and clerks already in our judiciary and any cases I may have can go before the ones currently sitting.  It is not even a close call for me.  I do not like to put people in awkward positions and I simply will not do so.  I also think it is the right thing to do and, therefore, I will do it.

I believe my experience as Clerk of Courts adds quite a bit to the job I would do as Governor’s Councillor, should I be fortunate enough to be elected.  As the Clerk of Courts for Worcester County I worked with all of the judges in all of the courts–except Juvenile–on a daily basis because we were all together in the former courthouse at 2 Main Street in Worcester. I am a keen observer and I saw the ones who are really great judges and the ones who, let’s say, could use improvement.  I believe I would easily recognize which applicants will make terrific judges and clerks and also the ones who may need a few more years of experience before they apply.  I will not be shy about sharing my observations and experience with the Governor or the Governor’s legal counsel.  I think that is what one should do in any job.

You served four years as Clerk of Courts.  Is your goal to serve on the Governor’s Council for a long time (or, perhaps, as long as the people would have you), or would you serve for a relatively short time, as you did as Clerk of Courts?

I do not have a “goal” as to how long I would serve on the Governor’s Council, should I be elected.  A big difference between the Council and the job as Clerk of Courts is that as a Councillor I will be out and about with the people who, hopefully, will elect me.  The Clerk of Courts is a rather isolated position as the Clerk is really in the Courthouse all day, every day, primarily doing administrative chores.  I am a “people person” and found the job too isolating, which was why I started a “mediation practice” within the courthouse wherein I “mediated” hundreds of cases which were on our docket.  I did this voluntarily, meaning no one asked me to do it nor did I receive any payment for it.  My salary was enough and my ability to “bring people together” made it something I was quite successful at and found rewarding to do.  I cannot predict how long I would serve, again, assuming I am fortunate enough to be elected, on the Council, but I do believe that “turnover” is good for government.  It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote to James Madison:  “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing for America.”  He wrote that, incidentally, about Shays’ Rebellion, an incident which occurred right here in the 7th Governor’s Councillor’s District.  While I do not mean to suggest I favor a “rebellion,” I do believe that “turnover” in elected office is fine and, frequently, cleansing and refreshing.

The Governor’s Council also advises on the appointment and removal of notaries public and justices of the peace.  Are you either a notary or a justice of the peace, and do you consider it a conflict if you are one and would also serve on the Council?

I am not a notary public nor am I a justice of the peace.  I also will not become either a notary or a justice of the peace.  What I do promise is to try to make it easier for qualified applicants to become notaries or justices by holding regular office hours throughout the District.  One common complaint is that Councillors are only accessible at their offices in Boston.  That is not what I will do if I am elected.  I will meet with constituents in city and town halls and in other locations throughout the District so that I can receive their applications (or renewal applications) from them where they live rather than them having to chase me down.  I will do this in the evening or during the weekends so people will not have to take time off from work to meet with me. I have a ton of energy and, as I said, I enjoy meeting and talking with people and I enjoy traveling throughout our region.  I also believe “public service” should be just that:
“Serving the public.”

Why would you like to be on the Governor’s Council?

I would not only “like” to be on the Governor’s Council, I would “love” to be on the Governor’s Council.  Frankly, it feels as though it is a job that was created with me in mind.  I love the law and our system of justice and I love politics and the study of government–my Bachelor’s Degree from Holy Cross College is in Political Science–and, as I have said, I enjoy interacting with people.  I do not find it a chore or burdensome to talk to people and, again to be frank, I like “helping people.”  I know that sounds trite, but it is true.  I was brought up in a family of eight children and we were taught to care of and look out for one another.  That philosophy has extended beyond my immediate family to the point where hardly a week goes by without someone calling me asking for my help with this or that.  I received more than my fair share of help along the way and I am happy to “pay it forward” when it is appropriate to do so.  I believe I have the necessary “skill set” to do a great job as your Governor’s Councillor.  As I said, it is a job I would love and I will work hard at doing it, should I be elected.

You chose to write to those criticising you on the telegram.com website. Many of us are familiar with the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” (i.e., don’t respond to those who criticize, as it only whets their appetite); you chose to respond.  Why?

I suppose the best answer to this question is to refer you to some of my earlier answers.  That is to say, I know it would be easier to ignore the bloggers or, “trolls,” as you called them, but it is simply not my nature to do so.  I am one of those people you see walking down the street who says “Hello” to everyone and I do mean, everyone.  I am friendly and compassionate by nature.  I cannot help it, nor would I want to change it. As I have said, “I like people” and, for the most part, people like me. Sure, I could have ignored the bloggers, but that just would not be right, in my opinion.  “Blogging” or “posting” is how a lot of people communicate in the 21st Century.  It would no more occur to me to “ignore their blogging” than it would occur to me to ignore them if they said something to me on the street.  I just cannot do it and I am happy that I am made this way.  I hope by responding I enlightened them a bit and, at the very least, made them realize that I was listening.  Listening is more important than talking and I am a “good listener.”