Brownsberger hits the ground running as new chair of judiciary committee

Issue April 2014 By Mike Vigneux

State Sen. Will Brownsberger began 2014 with a new role when he was appointed chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary by Senate President Therese Murray in January. While the chairmanship is a fairly new position for Brownsberger, he is certainly no stranger to the Massachusetts legal community, given his diverse legal background.

A native of Watertown and a resident of Belmont, Brownsberger has represented the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District in the Senate since 2012. His district covers Back Bay, Fenway, Brighton, Watertown and Belmont, and also includes the south end of Allston. Brownsberger also served as a state representative for the 24th Middlesex District from 2007 to 2012.

After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Brownsberger spent eight years in New York in the finance and software development industries. In 1992, he came back to his home state of Massachusetts to serve as an assistant attorney general under Scott Harshbarger. He spent five years at the Attorney General's Office as the asset forfeiture chief in the Narcotics and Special Investigations Unit, as well as deputy chief prosecutor in the Public Protection Bureau.

"At the Attorney General's Office I got very interested in issues of criminal justice policy, particularly around drug policy and supervision of offenders in the criminal justice system," said Brownsberger.

Most of Brownsberger's legal experience is on the criminal side, both as a prosecutor and a defender. Before coming to the state legislature, he served as a defense attorney in private practice, including court-appointed criminal defense. He also taught and served as a consultant at Harvard Medical School, the Boston University School of Public Health and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"Senator Brownsberger brings a wealth of real world experience to the senate chairmanship," said MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer Martin W. Healy. "He is very bright and understands the complexites of the legal system."

When former state senator Katherine Clark left the State House to fill U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's vacated congressional seat in Washington, D.C., Murray appointed Brownsberger as chair of the judiciary committee, a role previously held by Clark.

"Senator Brownsberger is a deliberative and thoughtful leader in the Senate and has a strong work ethic," said Murray in a January press release announcing Brownsberger's selection.

New to the role, Brownsberger is setting realistic goals for the work of the committee at the beginning of his leadership tenure.

"If my colleagues permit me to sit here for five or 10 years, I would like to look back and think that we moved a lot of nuts and bolts improvements that attorneys recognize as being necessary," said Brownsberger. "There are a lot of complicated issues that come before this committee, often that reflect consensus products of working attorneys. It's my hope that we'll be able to make those things move so that incrementally over the next five or 10 years we'll be able to see that the system has been improved, streamlined and better able to serve the cause of justice for people and for businesses."

According to Brownsberger, a vital piece of the committee's success will be based on listening to and understanding the needs of the state's legal community. He appreciates the level of collaborative work and consensus building that takes place within the local legal realm, which is often facilitated by the Massachusetts Bar Association through the House of Delegates, section councils and special commissions.

"I'm going to be listening very carefully to members of the judiciary, the working bar and my constituents to identify the measures we need to take to continually improve the criminal justice system and the civil justice system," he said. "Those working groups that do an effective job at harmonizing and recognizing the common elements and differing points of view in the legal system are groups that I expect to depend on heavily over the years to come. These areas of the law are complicated enough that the legislature rarely moves on them unless there is a rather firm consensus from within the legal community."

In terms of criminal justice reform, Brownsberger is motivated to have the committee look at reducing the lengths of some "overly punitive" sentences, which often place "collateral consequences" on offenders once they have made a few mistakes in the criminal justice system. He points to the loss of license after certain drug offenses as an example. In addition, Brownsberger hopes to help pass an adult guardianship reform bill (H.1366), which was referred to the committee last year.

Brownsberger also provided his take on specialty courts and the role of the court administrator. On the topic of specialty courts, Brownsberger is cautious and wants to ensure that the creation of additional specialty courts is appropriate. He notes that national research, particularly as it relates to drug courts, supports the creation of drug courts as an appropriate response for those with very serious drug problems and addictions to hard core substances such as alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

"We need to make sure that when we create specialty courts we are in fact helping people more as opposed to intensifying the consequences of their mistakes," he said. "It's important that specialty courts be a vehicle for providing both additional supervision and a lot of additional access to treatment. I think they can be helpful if they're done right and targeted to the right populations."

He sees the role of the court administrator as "exceedingly constructive" and essential to the administration of justice. Lewis H. "Harry" Spence was appointed as the first Court Administrator of the Massachusetts Trial Court by the Supreme Judicial Court in April 2012.

"Having a strong civilian administrator like Harry Spence is a great boon to the court system which enables a strong chief justice like Paula Carey to give her attention to the quality of justice as opposed to just the operations of the process," noted Brownsberger. "We've got a good team in place running our trial court right now and I'm very enthusiastic about the work they're going to do."

Based on his strong legal background, Brownsberger is well-positioned to hit the ground running - or biking, or even swimming - in this new role as judiciary committee chair. An active father of three daughters, Brownsberger has successfully competed in Ironman triathlons, most recently in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 2009, and Louisville, K.Y., in 2008. He's also been known to ride his bike to work at the State House from time to time.

In his "latest major athletic adventure," he rode his bicycle across the country, from Belmont to Anacortes, WA, in the summer of 2011. The 3,000-mile journey took 41 days, and he often stopped along the way to meet people and talk with them.

"Most of all it was an emotional bonding experience with my country," he wrote on his website in April 2012. "I was raised to love our flag and to think of myself as an American and I do. But the kindness of dozens of strangers brought me even closer to the country."

Whether it's competing in a triathlon, biking across the country or serving the Massachusetts legal community, Brownsberger is committed to going the extra mile and invites everyone to come along for the ride.