Nonnie S. Burnes, who lowered insurance rates in Massachusetts, dies at 79

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He said he was “on the moon that she would leave the bench to take on this mission.”

Judge Burnes, who spearheaded the introduction of greater insurance competition in Massachusetts, which lowered rates for most consumers, died Aug. 14 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

A longtime resident of Beacon Hill, she was 79 years old and diagnosed with cancer, before dying of complications from an infection during treatment.

His tenure as insurance commissioner was brief. She left after two years to become a senior researcher in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University.

But in a high-profile career, his stint as the top state insurance official had the most significant impact on almost everyone in the Commonwealth.

Judge Burnes “brought new vision and real courage to one of the central successes of this administration – the introduction of balanced, consumer-driven competition into our auto insurance market,” said Patrick in 2009 when she resigned.

Judge Burnes had also been a pioneering partner of the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow, a director of Northeastern University, and an early supporter in the political career of US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

“Nonnie was the kind of woman I love – she knew what she was believing, but she was always listening to a new idea and was ready to rethink,” Warren said in an email.

“She also believed in helping – really helping,” Warren added. “She figured out what to do, and she did it – from creating a big party to introduce a political newcomer to Boston’s old power to knocking out strangers on the door to Explain the importance of an upcoming election.Ordering pizza for the hungry campaign volunteers.She did everything she did with grace, determination and charm enough to put a smile on everyone’s face. she.

It was a Republican, Governor William Weld, who appointed Justice Burnes to the Superior Court in 1996.

“The energy, acuity and wit of Judge Nonnie Burnes shed a bright light for many years in Massachusetts Superior Court and throughout the Commonwealth court system,” he wrote in a E-mail.

At Hill & Barlow, who hired her out of law school in 1978, she became a pioneering partner. She mentored other women and new partners like Patrick, who joined the firm eight years later.

“She was just a force to be reckoned with,” said her husband, Rick Burnes, partner and founder of venture capital firm Charles River Ventures.

Judge Burnes was considered one of Hill & Barlow’s best litigators, and her work has comforted and relieved some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.

As a lawyer, she played a key role in long-running court cases that improved conditions in Massachusetts institutions for people with developmental disabilities. The lawsuits prompted a federal judge to order the Commonwealth to fund community placements for thousands of people who had lived in public schools that parents had criticized as little more than miserable warehouses.

“She was very smart, very strategic and a great lawyer, so she went into practice and had tremendous success,” said Margot Botsford, a retired deputy state Judicial Supreme Court judge who was a colleague of Judge Burnes at Hill & Barlow and on the bench of the Superior Court.

Judge Burnes has been equally successful as a Superior Court judge, Botsford said, and was instrumental in launching a professionalism course for state attorneys.

A month before Judge Burnes’ death, the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts announced that it would receive the Lelia J. Robinson Award, named after the first woman admitted to practice in the state.

“She was a maker,” said Botsford, “and a maker with a vision.”

The youngest of two children, Nonnie Steer was born in Cincinnati in 1942, daughter of Betty Strauss Steer and Paul W. Steer.

Her father was a lawyer and her mother, fluent in French, participated in community activities, including a French book reading group.

At Wellesley College, where she graduated in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Judge Burnes met Rick Burnes at the University Mixer.

They married after graduating from Harvard College in 1963 and she commuted from Cambridge to Wellesley to complete her studies.

The couple had three children, Gordon and Ethan, who both now live in Boston, and Sarah from Brooklyn, NY.

While raising the children, Judge Burnes attended Northeastern University Law School, commuting from the family home on Beacon Hill.

“One of my earliest memories is that she got on her bike to go to the northeast,” Ethan said.

“An orange bike – with a backpack,” Rick recalls.

Justice Burnes was in her mid-30s when she graduated from law school and began her 18-year tenure with Hill & Barlow, followed by 11 years as a Superior Court judge.

“The life of an unprofessional mother was something she didn’t want,” said Rick, and it influenced their decision to stay in Boston, rather than move to the suburbs. “We knew that if she wanted to do a job, it would have to be in town. “

As a mom, “she was always busy, but still had time to love us and make sure we had what we needed,” Ethan said. “And she really gave us the tools to step out into the world and be the people we wanted to be.”

A longtime reproductive rights advocate, Justice Burnes previously chaired the board of directors of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and served as its interim president.

At Northeastern, where she served as a trustee from 2000 to 2010, she had a “deep and everlasting impact,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of the university, in the school tribute.

“Her selfless commitment to equality, justice and the good of society permeated everything she touched within and beyond our university,” he added. “And her legacy will spread outward, far beyond the city limits, and declare that she has done so much to serve.”

She and her husband were instrumental in launching the Northeastern Public Interest Law Scholarship Program, which provides financial support to law students pursuing careers in social justice.

“The thing with Nonnie,” said Rick, “is that she saw reality so clearly and with such integrity.”

A memorial rally will be announced for Judge Burnes, who, in addition to her husband and three children, leaves behind nine grandchildren.

Patrick wrote in an email that he was “really devastated” to learn that his friend, former colleague and appointed insurance commissioner had passed away.

“There was a depth of character and a steely integrity in Nonnie who lived easily and comfortably alongside her genuine kindness and curiosity towards others,” he said.

“She had a hard head without ever having a hard heart. The combination made her unassailable and made us want to be better. It also made her seem invincible, which is why it seems impossible that she was gone.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]


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