STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 17, 2023…..Judge Harold “Hank” Naughton Jr., a former state representative who scored one of Gov. Charlie Baker’s final judicial appointments, abruptly resigned in September and rejoined his former law firm as it gears up for a multi-billion dollar water contamination settlement with major chemical companies.
Naughton served six months on the District Court bench, and gave court administrators just four days’ notice that he would be quitting his new job.
“While my tenure has been short, my experience as a Justice of the Trial Court has been a true highlight of my legal and public service career,” he wrote Sept. 18, announcing that he would resign effective Sept. 22.
Naughton had been interested in a judgeship for several years, and his letter did not speak to his reason for hanging up the black robes so quickly. He focused instead on complimenting fellow judges, courthouse staff, and attorneys, saying it “has been a true honor to be in their company.”
In a statement to the News Service, Naughton reported he’s back where he was working in 2022 — as a partner at New York-based law firm Napoli Shkolnik PLLC.
In his previous three-year stint at Napoli Shkolnik, Naughton “took a leadership role” in its environmental practice, the firm said this spring, “advising clients and working with water districts, municipalities, counties, and other entities whose water supplies have been negatively impacted by the use of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) by airports, military bases and local industries.”
Naughton served as counsel to the National Rural Water Association, the firm said. A year ago, he was at the NRWA’s annual WaterPro conference talking about ongoing multi-district PFAS litigation against chemical manufacturers and how local water utilities could join the suit.
“[I]n this lawsuit that’s taking place in Charleston, South Carolina, all the cases from around the country are consolidated there, it’s called a multi-district litigation, and our goal is to — either through a settlement prior to trial or a judgement after trial — to get a sum of money that then our clients … could apply to for reimbursement for their remediation costs,” Naughton said in a video posted to the NRWA website. “And we anticipate that to be an incredibly high number around the country that are going to have to pay to clean up their water and take this out — and PFAS, as you know, is literally called the forever chemical, or the everywhere chemical, because it is so difficult to get rid of.”
As Naughton moved on to the District Court bench in March, the litigation continued — before resulting in payout agreements this summer, which are also set to lead to hefty attorneys’ fees. In June, the firm announced a $1.185 billion settlement with chemical companies DuPont, Chemours, and Corteva, followed later that month by the announcement of a $12.5 billion “landmark settlement” with 3M Company.
By August, the firm and a settlement steering committee were offering water utilities a “clearer picture of the funding that would be made available” under the two settlements. Subject to court approval, they estimated $13.6 billion would be available to public water systems nationwide “to help them address existing or future PFAS contamination in their systems.”
On Sunday, class counsel filed a motion for attorneys’ fees and costs, including a request for $94.8 million in fees, with $4.74 million of that amount to be held back to cover administration of the settlement through 2030.
“Never before has litigation protected American drinking water on this scale,” attorneys including Paul Napoli of Napoli Shkolnik wrote in a supporting memorandum.
Of his decision to once again leave state public service in September, Naughton referenced his past work on Napoli Shkolnik’s water utilities litigation and said his latest move was the “best for my children.”
“At the end of the day, I decided returning to the firm was best for my children and my extended family,” he said in his email to the News Service. “This work is also very purposeful and meaningful. When the settlements are distributed, it will create the opportunity for cleaner water for hundreds of thousands of Americans. I’m proud to be part of something like this.”
Naughton would have been eligible to serve on the bench until 2030, when he would have hit the mandatory retirement age of 70. Trial Court judges earn an annual salary of $207,855.
“I loved the job, and it really was all I hoped it would be. Very purposeful,” Naughton said of his judgeship. “Just about every day I left feeling I had done something to help people, while at the same time protecting public safety.”
Naughton’s Sept. 18 notice of his hasty departure was addressed to Judge Jeffrey Locke, chief justice of the Trial Court; Judge Stacey Fortes, chief justice of the District Court; Judge David Despotopulos, first justice of Worcester District Court; and Kate Cook, chief of staff to Gov. Maura Healey.
A spokeswoman for the court would not provide a copy of Naughton’s letter, which was instead shared with the News Service by Healey’s office.
An Unusual Nomination
First elected to the House in 1994, Naughton served 13 terms — and co-chaired the Public Safety Committee for a decade — before opting not to seek reelection in 2020.
The 1991 Suffolk Law graduate formerly operated Naughton Law Office in Clinton where he handled criminal defense and civil litigation, and served as an officer in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps, which included time deployed in the Middle East. His decorations include a Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star Medal, according to Governor’s Council records.
The Clinton Democrat briefly ran for attorney general in the open 2014 Democratic primary, dropping out of the race early that year as his opponents, including political newcomer Maura Healey, gained traction.
Halfway through his 13th term in the House, and four months ahead of his announcement that he’d be retiring from the Legislature, Naughton submitted an application for a state judgeship in November 2019. Gov. Charlie Baker tapped him for a District Court post in December 2022, around a couple weeks before the Republican governor left the corner office.
The late-term nomination was unusual. Baker had filled nearly all court positions, and with available openings dwindling, picked Naughton for a seat that was not vacant at the time.
In a rare move, Naughton received confirmation from the Governor’s Council that month on the same day as his public hearing. The District Court seat the council confirmed him to was held by sitting Judge Margaret Guzman, and Naughton’s ability to be sworn in was predicated on the U.S. Senate confirming Guzman to a federal position.
Guzman squeaked through the Senate on March 1, opening the door for Naughton to take his oath of office from Healey on March 17 of this year.
One of Baker’s final choices, Naughton wound up as the first new judge to actually be minted by Healey, as Councilor Eileen Duff noted at the time on Twitter.
“St Pats Day swearing in for new Justice Hank Naughton. Healey/Driscoll administrations first. #mapoli #luckoftheIrish,” the governor’s councilor tweeted.
With Naughton’s departure, Healey’s Judicial Nominating Commission now has another vacancy to throw back on the pile. According to JNC data, open court spots currently number around a baker’s dozen.