New Mass. Commissioner Accustomed to Being the Judge

March 1, 2007

The new insurance commissioner for Massachusetts, who started on the job this week, thinks her years of experience in a judge’s robe will serve her well in her new role, one in which she sees herself as an arbiter of sometimes conflicting facts and information.

“I have a lot of skills for this job. I bring the ability to sort through the facts, to follow where the facts lead. It’s what I do,” Judge Nonnie Burnes, Gov. Deval Patrick’s pick to be his insurance regulator, told Insurance Journal in a recent interview.

While she has no direct experience in the insurance industry, she maintained that Gov. Patrick wanted someone “not beholden” to one viewpoint or interest group and she meets that requirement.

As a judge, she said she has come to learn that “insurance permeates everything.” Many of the cases she has heard from the bench have involved insurance issues, from “garden variety” coverage questions to major industry matters. Among the cases she has participated in are ones involving the Liberty Mutual demutualization and the Savings Bank Life Insurance conversion.

While she does not have one overall philosophy of regulation, she said it is important to recognize the differences in lines of insurance and how they are structured, from auto insurance which the state mandates people buy to life insurance which people may choose to buy or not.

Economics and politics
Asked if growing the insurance sector of the economy will be part of her mission, Burnes acknowledges it will be: “Absolutely, I see
myself part of that. It’s a very powerful sector in Massachusetts.”

She offered that the insurance industry is important at many levels. “For individuals and for companies, it’s incredibly important business and sometimes the agents are caught in the middle,” she added.

While economics is a factor in insurance regulation, Burnes is aware that politics also comes into play, especially when the subject is auto insurance. “It comes with the territory,” she told Insurance Journal.

She hopes that as often happens in legal settlements, the insurance department will be able to forge agreements among conflicting interests so that no party goes away too unhappy. But if decisions have to be made that upset some parties, so be it. “I’m certainly used to making tough decisions,” the judge added.

Among the issues Burnes could encounter is whether insurers should be permitted to use credit scores in rating. Massachusetts currently does not allow insurers to use credit scores in figuring auto and homeowners insurance prices. Burnes is keeping an open mind. She told Insurance Journal she has no view now whether credit scoring is good or bad but appreciates that what may make sense from a business perspective for insurers might be a bit “dicier” from a consumer angle.

For her own insurance needs, Burnes uses an independent agent whom she says she “trusts implicitly” and with whom her family has had a very good relationship for years.

Burnes has been a Superior Court justice since 1996, and was a member of the law firm Hill and Barlow prior to her appointment to the bench. Burnes also served as the vice chair of the State Ethics Commission.

She resigned her position as Superior Court justice prior to assuming her new position on Feb. 26. She replaces Joseph Murphy, first deputy commissioner, who has been serving as acting commissioner since Julianne Bowler, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, left in late December.

Note: This is an edited version of a story that originally appeared in Insurance Journal magazine, East edition, February 26, 2007.

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