Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Take A Small Step – Aspire to the Bench – Begin Your Judicial Application

June 05, 2023
| Summer 2023 Vol. 67 #3

The Boston Bar Association (BBA) firmly believes that justice is best advanced when the legal community—especially the judiciary—reflects the diversity of the community it serves. With the establishment of a new Judicial Nominating Commission and many open judicial positions, including on the Superior Court, I urge all stakeholders in the appointment process to seize this moment to build upon and accelerate past efforts toward diversifying the judiciary—views I shared recently in a Letter to the Editor of the Boston Globe.

At the BBA, we continue to do our part to promote diversity on the bench; on May 30, members of the Massachusetts judiciary and JNC Chair Abim Thomas presented at an online webinar, hosted by the BBA and the Massachusetts Affinity Bar Associations, to educate members of the bar about the judicial application process and the ins and outs of being a judge. Building upon that, we welcome those interested in pursuing a career on the bench to read the following from Hon. Debra Squires-Lee, Associate Justice of the Superior Court and a member of the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal, on the necessary qualities of a judge. It is our hope that, through these efforts, we will further our mission to advance the highest standards of excellence for the legal profession while fostering a diverse and inclusive professional community.

 – Chinh Pham, President, Boston Bar Association

Take A Small Step – Aspire to the Bench – Begin Your Judicial Application
By Hon. Debra Squires-Lee

Governor Healey has established a new Judicial Nominating Commission and is accepting applications for many open judicial positions, including on my court, the Superior Court. I write to urge every member of the bar interested in becoming a judge – especially women and diverse applicants – to start filling out those applications.

Being a judge is a deeply transformative and fulfilling opportunity to serve the people of the Commonwealth and your community. And it provides the means to support yourself and your families – the legislature has recently passed judicial pay increases and there is a solid pension after some years of service. Although the application appears daunting, take the first step and work on the application a little at a time each day. As one of my favorite poets advises, “start right now take a small step you can call your own.”

When you take that first step, you will see that the application asks questions intended to gain insight into the judicial candidate’s goals, motivations, understanding of the role of a judge, integrity, and character. One question that I labored over — writing, re-writing, and editing my answer many dozens of time– asked for the top attributes of a judge. After having served five years on the bench, in both criminal and civil sessions, in Bristol, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk counties, I now know, without a doubt, that the following are four of the essential attributes of a judge.

The first is patience. Parties arrive late to Court, lawyers get sick, hearings must be postponed, pro se defendants and civil litigants require a substantial amount of time to make their arguments and present their positions, witnesses fail to appear for trial or become belligerent or obstreperous, jurors are delayed and arrive late for trial. The list is endless. Frustration mounts because one of the core duties of a Superior Court Justice is encapsulated in our mission – to ensure justice with dignity and speed. Every judge feels a strong desire to move a case, to avoid keeping a jury waiting, to keep lawyers and parties focused and on task. But judges must keep firmly in mind that the law is a human enterprise – not just a judicial enterprise. And that every single person who enters a courtroom is often scared, sad, worried, nervous, even overwhelmed. Including the lawyers. So, with each delay, with each need to provide more time, more understanding, more listening, the judge must, by word and tone and affect, demonstrate patience. Not just being patient but exemplifying patience. Because only by manifesting patience can a judge ensure they do not compound, but rather ameliorate, the court participants’ worry and overwhelm.

The second is diligence. The job is difficult. It requires a broad skill set. Efficient and capable writing skills to keep up with the many written opinions that must be issued. Executive function skills to prepare for a trial as well as an afternoon motion list while continuing to draft written findings, rulings, and opinions. Management skills to keep a case moving pretrial and during trial. And, of course, people skills, a sense of humor, and a desire and ability to protect the vulnerable. To do this job well, judges must be diligent. They must squeeze efficiency out of every minute of every day. Diligence is necessary to accomplish the work necessary to deliver justice with dignity and speed.

The third is integrity. Judges make tough choices every day. They rule on unresolved questions of law. They make credibility determinations. They decide issues that affect people’s lives, liberty, employment, families, and property. Judges must keep front and center their personal integrity and ethics and test themselves on both constantly by asking themselves am I being fair, have I considered all the issues and precedent, have I considered contrary evidence that might weigh against my decision, am I treating the people in front of me as individuals and not as members of any particular group?

Finally, judges must be kind. When we put on our robes and walk into the courtroom, everyone rises. Not for the individual judge, but for the judicial branch – a co-equal and independent branch of government and the branch of government ordinary people are most likely to encounter. We represent that branch of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As a representative of the people’s government, we must treat every person who appears in our courtrooms with kindness, dignity, and respect.

Notice that I did not say the attributes necessary for a judge include any political viewpoints or professional connections or any specific educational or professional accomplishments. The qualities necessary are inherent in the person – of every race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation – not in what grades they got in law school, their politics, the income level of their family of origin, whether they are first or twelfth generation college graduates, where they were born, or who they know.

I strongly urge lawyers with the above attributes who would like to serve their community and the people of the Commonwealth to start right now. Take the first step. Fill out your applications. Especially lawyers from groups underrepresented on the courts of the Commonwealth. Aspire to the bench. Reach out to a judge you know or one you respect to talk about the job and to get advice. We will answer your questions.

If you have patience, diligence, integrity, kindness, and a desire to serve, please do not wait. The application takes time to get right. And, the judicial branch needs you.

Hon. Debra Squires-Lee is an Associate Justice of the Superior Court and a member of the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal. This article represents only her personal opinion.

Along with the Honorable Valerie Yarashus, Judge Squires-Lee serves as co-chair of the Superior Court’s Race and Anti-Bias Committee. She is happy to talk with applicants and potential applicants and find other judges willing to do so as well.