A Mayor Called Sue(d): Springfield Police Commission in Mass High Court’s Hands…
The highest court in the land—of Massachusetts at least—will hear and likely resolve one of the most vexing controversies in the City of Homes. On Wednesday, the Supreme Judicial Court accepted direct review of Hampden Superior Court Judge Francis Flannery’s ruling that Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno must appoint the Police Commission. Until that ruling, Sarno had argued that he had absolute power to decide the structure of police management in the city.
In an April 16 ruling, Flannery eviscerated Sarno’s claims of omnipotence and Hizzoner’s refusal to execute the duly passed Police Commission ordinance. The judge said under the city charter, the City Council was within its rights to revive the police panel which the Control Board had turfed nearly 15 years before. Yet, the case came to court nearly four years after the Council first overrode Sarno’s veto. Only in 2020 did the body retain legal counsel—pro bono—to sue for enforcement of the ordinance.
“The Supreme Judicial Court’s allowance of direct appellate review is a recognition that there is a lot at stake here and that it is in the interest of justice to have the dispute heard and resolved swiftly,” said Council attorney Michael Aleo.
Lawyers for the mayor did not immediately reply to a request for comment. The mayor’s office did not immediately comment. The parties jointly filed the direct review.
In their joint filing, the mayor and Council state the only issue is whether the 2018 ordinance “was duly adopted.”
That the SJC would take the case is not surprising. It frequently takes up issue important to public interest as the parties said in their motion..
Unlike the gnarly nine in Washington, the SJC will often take up cases of import before the Massachusetts Appeals Court acts. This is partly because the SJC was the only appellate court for much of the colony and later commonwealth’s history.
Litigants can usually avail themselves of one appeal from lower courts. Some states like Rhode Island have no intermediate court at all. The Massachusetts Appeals Court took some pressure off the SJC for routine appeals.
Still, in taking the case, the SJC is ensuring that the case could reverberate well beyond Springfield itself. Many cities use the same model language that communities could access under the general laws. Since the dawn of home rule in the 1960’s, many communities write their own charters from scratch. However, they usually end up borrowing wording in the general laws. Alternatively, older charter language endures even after a home rule process.
That there is apparently no case precisely on point in over a century suggests few mayors elsewhere have been as brazen as Sarno was here. He is not the first to argue a Council infringed on his power. However, his definition of the broadness of his authority is without clear precedent.
Residents and pols—including Sarno at one time—have sought to resurrect the Police Commission almost from the moment the Control Board left town. The Control Board had dismantled and replaced it with a sole commissioner in 2006. That act combined the day-to-day authority of the chief with the policy-making and appointment powers of the Commission.
However, the process also removed civilian oversight and control of Pearl Street. The sole commissioner is now responsible directly to the mayor. Historically, the patrolmen’s union has also supported revival of the Commission. However, they have mostly stayed out of recent fights about it.
The Council first attempted to restore the Commission in 2014, but failed to overcome a mayoral veto. After Gregg Bigda became a household name in 2016, the Council pushed through its Police Commission ordinance over the mayor’s opposition. Councilors made modifications in a 2018 that is technically the subject of the lawsuit.
At the heart of the Council’s suit was charter language that lets councilors create, abolish and “reorganize” city departments. Sarno had argued his right to appoint boards and commissions without Council approval also meant he could determine their structure. In other words, the ordinance violated his powers as mayor. Flannery rejected this, although he did rule the Council could not impose qualifications on mayoral appointees.
The mayor had also argued his employment contract with the current sole commissioner, Cheryl Clapprood, preempted the ordinance. Flannery rejected this as well. He noted that the right to contract with a police leader did not forestall implementation of the ordinance. Nor do the two laws even necessarily conflict. Moreover, Clapprood’s contract was inked well after the ordinance passed and her position abolished.
Sarno first appealed the ruling to the Appeals Court not long after Flannery’s ruling. The filing for direct SJC review came earlier this month.
There’s no reason to think Sarno’s chances will be any better before the SJC. The court will review the same law the Appeals Court would have. The statute remains quite clear as the Council’s power. Moreover, it would be an extraordinary grant of power to permit a mayor to unilaterally void ordinances.
For Sarno to win, the justices of the SJC would need to be so flexible that they exceed the legal gymnastics his lawyers performed in Flannery’s court.