Judge suggests delating decision on Partners expansion until new attorney general takes office

The latest court hearing involving Partners HealthCare's proposed takeover of three suburban hospitals led to a testy exchange when Attorney General Martha Coakley took offense to the judge's suggestion that Coakley was driven by politics.

Judge Janet Sanders also said Monday she may wait until Coakley's successor, Maura Healey, takes over the state attorney general's office before ruling on whether to accept a deal approved by Coakley that would allow the deal to go through.

Partners HealthCare, the state's biggest health care system, wants to merge with South Shore Hospital in Weymouth and take over hospitals in Medford and Melrose.

The deal has been opposed by Partners' rivals and by the state's Health Policy Commission, which has said that the merger would drive up costs to insurers by tens of millions of dollars.

Other hospital groups say it gives Partners too much market control.

Coakley brokered a deal that would allow Partners to expand, while setting price caps and other consumer protection measures and while limiting further Partners expansion in eastern Massachusetts.

Lawyers on both sides made their cases at Monday's hearing.

"I have no idea where the incoming attorney general stands on this," Sanders said. "Shouldn't she have clearance to weigh in on this one way or the other?"

Healey takes over for Coakley as attorney general in January, following Coakley's loss in the governor's race.

Coakley objected when Sanders noted that the deal was finalized last summer, in the midst of her gubernatorial campaign.

Coakley said her political aspirations had nothing to do with her decisions in the case.

"I didn't mean to impugn your integrity," Sanders said.

"Well, I think you have, your honor," said Coakley.

Sanders apologized.

Partners employs 6,500 doctors and operates Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital and six other acute care facilities.