Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Chief Justice Stacey Fortes of the District Court

February 09, 2024
| Winter 2024 Vol. 68 #1

Interviewed by Judge Catherine Hyo-Kyung Ham

Judge Ham: Thank you for taking the time to interview with me. Can you tell us about your upbringing, education, or experience that led you to first apply to become a judge?

Judge Fortes: I was raised in Boston. My mother and my father were very much involved in social justice and there was a strong emphasis in my family and from African American history to focus on giving back. What I learned from my parents had a big impact on me in terms of wanting to do good and giving back.

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I went to American University as an undergraduate, and Suffolk Law School. I became an assistant district attorney in the Roxbury Division.

Judge Ed Redd, Judge Milton Wright, and Judge Greg Phillips were presiding in Roxbury at the time, that was the first time that I ever saw judges that looked like me. There, I really first learned what it was like to work in a community court. And that’s where my love for the District Court started.

Judge Ham: You were first appointed to the bench in 2006. You held quite a number of impressive titles and bore significant responsibilities since then: you were the Regional Administrative Judge in 2014, First Justice of Lowell District Court in 2017, and now, the Chief Justice of the District Court in 2022. How did these experiences prepare you for your current role?

Judge Fortes: I think through all of my experiences, I’ve had an opportunity to really see all of the challenges that face the District Court. For most of my time as a sitting judge, I served in busy urban courts. I sat for 7 years in the Lynn District Court, another 7 years in the Lowell District Court, as the First Justice there. So, I understand the challenges facing the District Court, including pressures on judges, clerks, and probation officers in terms of the volume of cases that they handle on a daily basis.

I often analogize our courts to busy emergency rooms. We see a large volume of cases in the District Court. We are dealing with trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse issues and violence. We often encounter people on the worst day of their lives. That’s what we see on a daily basis. We are trying to figure out how to deliver justice and to meet the needs of the communities that we serve. So, having the experience as a sitting judge and being able to deal with a variety of cases that come into the courthouse on a daily basis, has prepared me. I know the challenges that all of our clerks, probation officers and court officers deal with, trying to figure out new ways to meet the demands of the community.

Certainly, there is a need for collaboration and communication with people outside of the court, including all of the stakeholders and community agencies. The relationships that I have built with the other management who serve the court are critical in order for us to continue to deliver justice. Those types of partnerships, and those experiences, helped me to step into the role of Chief Justice.

Judge Ham: Now that you’ve served as a chief of the District Court for over a year, has your perspective of the role of a judge in the District Court stayed the same, or has it altered in any way at all?

Judge Fortes: I can tell you I’ve always been extraordinarily proud to serve the District Court. I spent the first year traveling from one end of the state to the other, so I was able to visit all 62 district courts. I have not made it to Martha’s Vineyard, but I have plans to do that soon.

I wanted to do that to hear from that everybody. I spent time with the First Justices, clerk magistrates, probation chiefs, and court officers, and asked them, “What do you need? How can we help?” And I can tell you that I am so impressed with the work that is done in our courts. There are so many disparities in terms of resources, such as old buildings bursting at the seams and lack of technology. But things that are really just being held together by people’s initiatives and thinking outside the box. There are challenges like having enough interpreters and having enough clinicians. The esteem that I hold for everyone who serve in and for the District Court has only grown based on my travels and conversations.

Judge Ham: You are the first African American woman and the first judge of color to serve as the Chief Justice of any trial court in Massachusetts. You were the first African American woman to serve as the First Justice of Lowell District Court, and I probably have missed other “firsts” as well. These are many paths that you are paving. To what do you attribute your success?

Judge Fortes: First, my parents. I also look around at the artwork and books in my office and it reminds me that I get so much strength from my history and where I come from, and I understand that there are people who have walked the path before me who have been resilient.

I have two grandmothers: one who had to raise five kids and one who raised seven kids while cleaning people’s houses and they suffered all kinds of indignities as African American women, but they had a strong work ethic and cared about their communities. So, I draw a lot from those who came before me, and I attribute any success I have to those who paved a way for me.

Judge Ham: Is there a different pressure that you place on yourself, or that others place on you after becoming so many “firsts?”

Judge Fortes: I don’t think there is a minority child who has not heard from their parents, that in order to get in the room, get through the door, you cannot just be good. You have to be better. And that pressure comes from just being who you are. You know that you’re under a spotlight that maybe other people don’t have, and you’re concerned about making mistakes, and how those are going to be perceived. You want to make sure that you are putting your best foot forward again, because as important and as exciting it is to have this first opportunity, you want to make sure that there’s a standard of excellence to which you hold yourself so that others can have the opportunity. It means a lot to me to have this role. It means even more to me to know that I am creating opportunities for people who will come after me.

Judge Ham: Being a leader and a woman of color is a congruent concept to you and me, but perhaps not to the general public. In a world where there are so few women of color in leadership, what are your strengths that you draw from?

Judge Fortes: Probably back to what I said earlier, my strength comes from surrounding myself with books, with art, with quotations from my heroes and my family members. I have a book in my office about Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman on the federal bench. People who have walked the path before me give me the strength and help me to persevere.

Judge Ham: Can you tell us a little bit about the painting in your office?  Is that one of the pieces of art from which you draw strength?

Judge Fortes: It’s called “Equal Justice,” by Ted Ellis. The painting depicts a courtroom with one of my heroes, Thurgood Marshall in the background. The judge is African American, all the jurors are African American, the lawyers are African American, and the court officer is African American. The painting elicits a lot of conversations about the perception of justice.

We have those conversations on a regular basis in the District Court: what it means to an individual to walk into a courthouse, and how their perception of justice starts from the time they walk in the front door.

Before I became Chief, I worked on issues of race and ethnic fairness. One of the things that was important to me was working with clerk magistrates on these same issues, although we had done that work with judges. So, we had our clerk magistrates Conference in September, and I invited Devin McCourty as our speaker, because of all the work he’s done on issues of criminal justice reform. What ties this effort back to this painting is the importance of having clerk magistrates involved in the conversation and ensuring that their offices reflect the diversity that we see in our communities.

Judge Ham: What has been most rewarding in your new role as the Chief Justice?

Judge Fortes: I can’t point to just one thing. Certainly, being able to travel to all the District Courts, and to have conversations in those courts with staff individuals have been very rewarding. I’m proud of all of our District Court committees, including forming two new committees with clerk magistrates, because I wanted to get more people in the District Court involved through committee work.

And that conference with the clerk magistrates that I mentioned earlier was a result of the work of not just me and the individuals in the administrative office, but also of the two committees of clerk magistrates, because they expressed how committed they are to see diversity and change in their offices. I’m proud of that.

At Chief Justice Dawley’s request, I started the Judges’ Committee of Race and Ethnic Fairness some years ago and that training continues. We have a conference where we address issues of racial ethnic disparity every December. So that continued work is something I’m proud of. Addressing our pandemic-related backlog in terms of prioritizing cases and prioritizing the firearm cases that were outside of time standards have been rewarding.

Frankly, I’m just proud of how everyone has come together. The judges, clerks, and probation officers to continue to move the work of the District Court forward.

Judge Ham: What has been personally and professionally challenging to you in your new role?

Judge Fortes: When I became a lawyer, and when I became a judge, particularly in a community court, I was driven by this need to help. That’s primarily why I applied to be Chief. The biggest challenge for me is to go around the state and ask people how I can help. Whether there is trouble getting enough interpreters, dealing with some of the infrastructure kinds of issues, or trying to have enough jury sessions in order to be able to do the work. So that’s been a little frustrating, not being able to get an immediate fix for people despite everybody’s efforts. As a judge, to get an answer and solution to a problem is very different than when you’re in an administrative position.

Judge Ham: Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

Judge Fortes: In ten years, I think I’d like to be back on the bench. I love being Chief, I’m honored to be Chief, but I miss sitting in a courtroom. I feel extraordinarily privileged to be Chief of the District Court. There are some amazing, amazing people working in our courts.

Judge Ham:  It’s been such an honor to speak with you. Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring words.

Hon. Stacey Fortes is Chief Justice of the Massachusetts District Court. Fortes previously served as a judge for the Lynn District Court and the Peabody District Court. She was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006.

Hon. Catherine Hyo-Kyung Ham is an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court.