Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott Kafker called the decision over whether Keith Hovan’s clerk magistrate hearing should be public “a close question.”

But he didn’t really outline any specific reason why he thought it was close. All the known evidence seems to be that it wasn’t.

No matter how much Kafker wants to be sensitive to Hovan’s family situation, no matter how much he wants to be respectful of his 2nd Amendment rights, the fact remains that the president and chief executive officer of the Southcoast Health has an awful lot of non-hunting guns and ammunition out there in the woods in Rochester.

That is more than a matter of public concern when it comes to the leader of the region’s largest health care provider.

One reason it is concerning is that police in the last decade have been out to Hovan’s home numerous times, and twice over domestic matters — the first over a verbal argument where the police report said Hovan’s wife appeared to be crying. The second over an alleged assault and battery in which Hovan’s arm was bleeding and his wife had a bruise on her face.

The victim in this case has invoked marital privilege and chose not to testify so the assault charge brought by Rochester Police will not go forward. Not that it could not have gone forward without the wife’s testimony had the Plymouth district attorney thought the case merited it and that he had the evidence.

No, none of this means that Hovan’s actions are not a matter of public concern.

Read Supreme Judicial Court Justice Scott Kafker's decision:

After the second incident, it was Hovan’s 11-year-old daughter who called 911 after the struggle between him and his wife, police said. His wife had been writing in a journal after an argument about a television show and Hovan attempted to rip up the paper. He greeted the officers saying something to the effect of “I did it,” and “my arm hit her in the face.” Police said the high-profile administrator appeared to be covered in a liquid that smelled like alcohol at the time.

Note the passive construction of the way Hovan described the injury: “My arm hit her face,” as opposed to “I hit her.” Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was not. What we do know is it was a struggle over what the victim was writing.

Hovan, according to the police, has what sounds like an awful lot of illegal high-capacity magazines — 83 and a total of 19,500 legal rounds of ammunition.

Maybe gun enthusiasts will say that it’s really not unusual for someone who regularly pursues target practice. Maybe survivalists will say it’s not much for someone who wants to prepare for the possible demise of law and order and the country descending into anarchy.

If those are Hovan’s practices and fears, and those are the reasons why he has built his arsenal, he should explain that to the South Coast public. He’s the leader of the largest employer in the city and the largest deliverer of a life-and-death service. He has more responsibility to tell us what he thinks than the average citizen.

In fact, Hovan has weighed in on gun matters before — but not in the way one might have expected given the recent revelations. It now seems more than a little odd that after the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of young children at a Connecticut elementary school, Hovan authored an op-ed that argued there is no reason for high-capacity rounds, even though he apparently possesses some of them in Rochester.

“Weapons that hold 30, 50 or 100 rounds?” he wrote. “All you really need to know is this: One of the weapons that killed the children in Sandy Hook School is described as a semi-automatic version of a military-grade weapon similar to those our troops carry in combat in Afghanistan. What is a weapon like that doing in suburban Connecticut or in any of our communities?”

The reality is that Massachusetts is a largely densely populated, progressive state with a long history of strict gun laws. People who live here would want to know why Hovan has chosen to accumulate all these guns and ammunition in a town that is more and more like a suburb than a rural community.

Surprisingly, despite all the known facts, Justice Kafker and Wareham Clerk Magistrate Daryl Manchester have ruled that Hovan deserves privacy as he and his lawyer explain to the court the reasons for his alleged illegal high-capacity magazines.

Manchester has argued that the charges involving the rapid rounds are separate from the assault and battery charges and also separate from Hovan’s job as CEO of Southcoast. That may be technically true — the police report does not describe any weapons being used in the assault, and Hovan was certainly not at work when it is said to have occurred. But the two matters are definitely related. Rochester Police themselves have said the weapons were removed from Hovan’s home as a standard precaution, in light of the first charge.

And given the worrisome details in the Rochester Police report, why has this case even gone to the secretive Massachusetts court system known as a “show cause” hearing before a clerk magistrate instead of a trial before a judge?

Rochester Police have said the magistrate will decide whether Hovan should face a lesser charge on the magazines because of the fact he is a licensed gun owner. There may also be an issue as to whether Hovan acquired the rapid rounds before or after the Massachusetts law banning them went into effect. But those seem like technical matters that could still be adjudicated publicly — if not before a judge, then at least publicly before the magistrate.

When Hovan was charged with assault and battery, he quickly hired Chris Markey as his attorney. Markey, a state rep and former assistant district attorney in Bristol County, comes from one of the most politically connected families on the South Coast. His father is a former longtime New Bedford mayor and district court judge; his brother is one of the most prominent waterfront lawyers and the campaign manager of Jon Mitchell’s first mayoral bid.

Markey served in the Legislature briefly with former state Rep. Stephen Canessa, who is now Southcoast Health’s vice president for marketing and strategic communication. Canessa first worked at Southcoast as a legislative liaison and some say he is the heir apparent to Hovan.

For his part, Clerk Magistrate Manchester has had his own powerful political connections over his career. That is how court clerk positions are often filled in Massachusetts.

None of this is to say that the fix is automatically in, just because well-known political players are involved. But the presence of these inside players, combined with a closed-door hearing, does breed cynicism in the public that there are two forms of justice on the South Coast, one for the connected and one for those who are not connected.

What is certain is that Markey and Manchester know how the legal system works in Massachusetts and how to use it within the law, even if that law is not always in the best interest of public confidence in the judiciary itself.

Justice Kafker said something to the effect that he cannot say Mancheseter’s decision was an error or abuse of his discretion in keeping the case private. That may be true, according to Massachusetts’ dubious clerk magistrate system, which allows all sorts of charges to be adjudicated in private. But it certainly is not true in the larger matter of fair and equitable justice.

Coming on top of the dismissal of the assault charges against Hovan, holding the clerk magistrate’s hearing in private is a road map for quietly making the matter go away, and perhaps returning the hospital executive to his job. Officials at Southcoast and at least one member of the board of trustees have already described the whole matter as a “personal” issue.

The clerk magistrate system has long been a secretive, largely off-the-books, non-public shadow judicial system in Massachusetts. It is where City Councilor Hugh Dunn’s motor vehicle OUI and leaving the scene charges first ended up. Under the glare of publicity and perhaps the political power of Mayor Mitchell and District Attorney Thomas Quinn, that proceeding was opened up. Dunn will now stand trial.

But Hovan’s proceedings will not be opened. Depending on what Manchester decides, they may just go away. The only way the public will ever know about whether Hovan’s 83 magazines were legal or illegal is if the clerk magistrate files a charge against him. And even that may not get to the truth of the matter.

This case should not just go away in private. We cannot have the leader of the region’s largest health organization just go back to work after all of this as if nothing has happened. He will never be able to credibly address issues of either domestic or gun violence after this. The whole South Coast will be the loser.

That’s what happens when the judicial system functions behind closed doors.

Email Jack Spillane at

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