- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - The chief justice of the highest court in Massachusetts announced his retirement Monday after nearly 37 years as a judge.

Chief Justice Roderick Ireland of the Supreme Judicial Court said he will retire in July, several months before he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.

“Serving the people of Massachusetts in this great office of public trust has been a truly humbling, challenging, stimulating - albeit sometimes difficult - but always rewarding experience, and I have enjoyed each and every day of my work,” Ireland wrote in a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick named Ireland as the first black chief justice in the court’s history in 2010. Ireland was first appointed to the high court in 1997.

In his letter, Ireland said he decided to step down before he turns 70 and before the court’s new term begins in September to ensure a smooth transition for his successor.

Patrick thanked Ireland for “exceptional service” in his role as the leader of the third branch of government in Massachusetts.

“I think the morale in the court system and the sense by litigants that they have been heard and fairly treated is very, very strong right now, and I think that is about Justice Ireland,” Patrick said.

The court system, like other branches of government, has been forced to absorb budget cuts over recent years, yet Ireland still has been able to manage and strengthen the court system during that time, the governor said.

Patrick could choose a new chief justice from among the other sitting justices or go outside the court for a new chief justice. He called the selection process “wide open” and gave no timetable for choosing a successor to Ireland. He said his chief legal counsel, Kate Cook, would work with the Judicial Nominating Commission to screen potential candidates for the post.

Patrick already has appointed four members - a majority - of the seven-member court during his two terms, and is now in a position to select a fifth, potentially allowing him to leave a powerful imprint on the court for years to come.

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