Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Federal Judicial Roundtable: Getting to Know Judges Kelley, Guzman, and Joun

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

Interviewed by Elizabeth Gardon

The Boston Bar Journal held a roundtable discussion with three recent additions to the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts: Judges Margaret R. Guzman, Angel Kelley, and Myong J. Joun. In this lively interview, moderated by Elizabeth Gardon, Associate, Todd & Weld, and which has been edited and condensed, the judges reflected on their paths to the bench. The second portion of their discussion, published in the Spring Edition, can be found here

Gardon: Thank you Judge Guzman, Judge Joun, and Judge Kelley for participating in this interview. Congratulations on your appointment to the U.S. District Court. I look forward to talking about your experiences in both state and federal court. Each of you were state court judges before being appointed to the U.S. District Court. Why did you apply to become a state court judge?

Judge Guzman: After nearly 15 years as a full-time public defender, I was looking forward to the challenge of private practice. And despite the welcome challenge of working on new areas of law, I continued to feel that I was at a transition point and decided to apply to the state judiciary. My appointment as a state District Court judge in Worcester was unusual in so many ways. I was only the second woman ever appointed at that level in Worcester. I was from Worcester and had primarily practiced in the Worcester area. The closeness of the legal and regional community, and the legacy of my career as a high-profile criminal defense attorney presented challenges, and I struggled for those first few years. It took me years to transition my mind from that of an advocate to a neutral fact finder. Soon after my appointment, I remember receiving advice from a seasoned and well-respected judge who encouraged me during this transition to take heart that around year 5, I would one day just take the bench, do the job, and know that I was in the right place. And almost to the day, in my fifth year, I experienced that level of comfort. I received enormous satisfaction in bringing my decades of trial experience to the thousands of cases I dealt with daily, having great empathy, but also recognizing the need for fair and timely decisions. It was really gratifying to be able to see justice even at the level of traffic tickets and misdemeanor cases. So, what was a hard transition turned out to be a very important experience in my life which brought me great joy.

Judge Kelley: I applied to the state court because the federal court wouldn’t take me initially. I had applied to the federal court after having practiced in New York in federal court. I also was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston. That was the level that I wanted to be at. That didn’t happen, so I applied to the state court bench knowing that I wanted to be a judge, believing that it was the highest form of public service in the legal profession. Fortunately, I was given an opportunity to serve on the state District Court. At that time, I wanted to be on the Superior Court, but I was offered the District Court seat. Several years later, I applied again to the Superior Court. I had to take steps to get to the Superior Court, and then ultimately here, which is where I always wanted to be. I feel like I made some good contributions to the state court system, but I always had my eyes on the federal court. One might say I took the long route to the federal court.

Gardon: So how was your state District Court experience? Did you have experience practicing in district court?

Judge Kelley: I did not. Through my students at Harvard, I had experience with the state court system in the Probate and Family Court. But I never actually practiced in the state district or superior court. It was a learning experience like any other. If you look at my background, I made big jumps each time, to different areas of law, different locations, and different types of practice. It was a learning curve like any other, and it was a wonderful experience, but not quite what I wanted for my judicial career. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in the state court system in two different trial court departments. It helped to prepare me for my new position in the federal court.

Gardon: Thank you. Judge Joun, why did you apply to be a state court judge?

Judge Joun: Some people know, have known, since the first day of law school, that they want to be a judge. I was not one of those people. I never thought about applying to be a judge until friends started becoming judges, and they started talking about their job and encouraging me to think about it. It took me a couple of years before I finally put in an application. Sometimes it just takes somebody to plant that seed, because you don’t think that you can be one until somebody says, yeah, I think you’d be good. And then you play around with that idea. After two years of thinking about it, I had the idea that I might be able to make a positive impact on people’s lives in a different role. So, I applied.

Judge Kelley: That is probably a very common experience. Sometimes it takes someone to plant that seed. You may not think of yourself as being good enough or worthy of the position. It was the same for me: it was when I was making that transition from New York to Massachusetts, and meeting with some judges here and talking about a career in Massachusetts, when those judges planted the seed for me by saying, “Angel, looking at your background, why don’t you consider applying to the bench?”

Judge Guzman: During my time as a trial attorney, many judges urged me to consider seeking a judgeship. Despite my protestations, I think the idea did find its way into the back of my mind. As my life and career matured and changed, many of those same judges reapproached me and asked – “Okay, now are you ready?” I’m not sure if my hesitance was due in large part by the way I saw myself – as an advocate, the one who takes on the worst case, or because of how I looked at the judiciary – I really didn’t see anyone on the bench who looked like me or had a similar life journey. And yet, once I got on the bench, the differences began to fade away. Unlike in my early years as a lawyer, the state judiciary became much more representative of the larger society. And despite my own journey, when I was encouraged to apply for the federal bench, I felt those same old doubts about the value of my personal and professional experience to this possible new challenge. Luckily, I have a deep bench of supporters, who refused to let me be trapped by those artificial limits. Of course, the switch from state to federal judiciary was not without challenges, but I approached my new role with the same commitment to bring my experience and desire to do justice for each litigant and each case.

Gardon: What surprised you about being a judge? And, do you miss civil discovery at all?

Judge Kelley: What surprised me, and something I mention to others who are considering a position on the bench, is the lifestyle change. Your world gets smaller, not larger. As lawyers, you might go to different events, and you’re always expanding your network. I found that as a judge, my network became other judges. There is less building of friendships and relationships outside of the judiciary. People refer to the job as isolating. There are a lot of things that you cannot do. You cannot engage in political activities, and you need to conduct yourself honorably because you’re a reflection of the court.

Gardon: Do you miss discovery?

Judge Kelley: Funny you should ask. I don’t miss trials as much: one, because I teach trial skills, and two because I see trials in front of me all the time. But I do miss depositions. On occasion, I teach deposition skills. Depositions were fun. There’s a whole science behind doing it well and different ways of doing it. Doing a deposition well is the key to prevailing on a summary judgment motion or at trial.

Judge Joun: I agree with Judge Kelley about the surprise of being a judge. I was surprised by the diversity of cases in the Boston Municipal Court. I had no idea that there were mental health civil commitment hearings and administrative agency appeals in addition to all the contract and car accident cases. Coming here, you have insurance, securities, antitrust, labor, immigration, and IP/trademark cases. Again, it has only been four months, so it seems like every day that I’m opening a file that surprises me, and it keeps me engaged. Today, during lunchtime I was talking to Judge Young, and he said, he’s been on the bench for 40 years and he just had a case that he’s never seen before. I think that’s what keeps us all going. So many interesting cases.

Judge Guzman: I concur with both judges. I would say as much as I enjoyed meeting litigants and doing what I could as a lawyer in the District Court, being on the bench fulfills my desire to be fully challenged with complex legal issues. I was looking for ways to challenge myself and contribute. But I did not believe that the federal judiciary was a realistic goal despite repeated encouragement from my good friend and longtime colleague, Judge Kelley. I wasn’t worried about my ability to be a federal judge but skeptical that such a pursuit would be successful. But like most of my life, timing and other forces propelled me to action. When I applied, it was received very well, and I even enjoyed the confirmation process. Every day I come into the Worcester federal court and take on another legal challenge. I have found that I can maintain my way of interacting with lawyers, court staff, and litigants. In conferences, I speak directly to the lawyers to get a sense of what is really at issue—cut to the problems and help find resolutions or just bring it to trial. In my short time on the bench, I have had several jury trials, both civil and criminal. It’s been incredible—exhausting, but a good tired. It has taken me a long time to find a place where I could really contribute something unique. And it’s almost poetic that I get to do it in my hometown of Worcester.

Gardon: Judge Guzman and Judge Joun, both of you were sole practitioners. How has that shaped your careers as lawyers and prepared you for the bench?

Judge Joun: I feel like this job is more like the solo practice that I had. In state court you didn’t own the cases. I remember when you’re in private practice and you prepared for everything. Everything was organized. Everything was calendared. As a judge in state court, you don’t know what is on the next day until it showed up; then the clerk started passing the files to see what the case is about, and you’re trying to read it while listening to the lawyers and trying to figure it out on the fly. Here, because you own the cases, I find myself thinking about the cases all the time, which I didn’t do for the last few years. Now I’m thinking about cases as I’m eating dinner, as I’m lying in bed. It’s just all-consuming. Just like I had in my solo practice.

Judge Guzman: I think Judge Joun got it exactly right. I only did it for four years. But you take anything that comes in the door. I was really grateful for that experience which helped me a lot when I sat in the civil sessions in the District Court because it took away a little bit of the mystique. You worry about what will happen when you are faced with a trial on a civil case and you’ve never done one. What I learned is that a trial is a trial. They all have parts, and you can handle them all. So, as a solo practitioner, I was my own secretary, my own investigator, and my own file keeper. I also had to learn how to manage my time when I didn’t have a lot of support staff, and that was very helpful. That nimbleness is very helpful in this job. I also think that there’s a mystique about serious civil cases. But if you’ve handled a murder case or very serious criminal assault that’s multi-defendant, actually presiding over a trial is quite doable. The issues are similar, and quite frankly, there’s almost nothing that can come up in a civil case that can be as jarring as autopsy photos, seeing a juror starting to cry in the middle of a presentation, and things like that.

Judge Kelley: I think Judge Joun makes an important distinction that practitioners may not fully understand. Judge Joun primarily was in the Boston Municipal Court; Judge Guzman and I, probably early on, sat in several different courts within our region. In the District Court you could be in a different place every day, and so you keep your books and robe in the car with you, because you might be on your way to one court, get a call, and be told to go to another court. You don’t know what you’re walking into. And I used to think that I just needed to have my boots on because I didn’t know what I was stepping into. The Superior Court is a bit different in that you have assignments for three months. You’re assigned to a civil session or a criminal session; a first session, a trial session, or a motion session. You’re able to set up camp for a period of three months, maybe six months if you have a double rotation there. But as far as knowing what you’re going to have, I would have my clerk line up my cases for the week, a week in advance so that if I had time, I could start to look ahead to the cases that are coming down the pike. But you don’t want to get too far ahead because so many things can come off the list. Then that’s time wasted. Whereas here, we have our own cases, from beginning to end, we are managing all aspects of it. That is a really big difference from the state courts. In state court, those cases belong to the session of that court. They weren’t our cases. We were only presiding over them for either that day or for that three-month period.  It is important to understand the differences between the three courts.

Gardon: All three of you practiced in different offices and environments during your careers, so you bring your own unique backgrounds and paths to the bench. Do you have any advice for someone considering whether to pursue a judicial position?

Judge Guzman: I was a known entity in the City of Worcester, but I also was very active in the local community on the planning board, numerous other boards, and commissions in the city. They also got to know me as a lawyer and someone who was well-known in the community. I didn’t do it strategically, but it turned out that many of those calls were very instrumental in filling out a picture of me that was larger than just my resume and my experience as a lawyer. One of the things I would say is, you must be true to yourself.  I think the most important thing a young lawyer or new lawyer must figure out is who are they within the legal community and if this is something they want to do for a career. Some people find themselves practicing law for a couple of years, and then they segway into something more lucrative or more satisfying. So, you have to figure out what you want. The natural reputation that you have earned shows who you are. For instance, Judge Kelley dedicates a lot of her off time to teaching, training students in trial advocacy, and volunteering to judge mock trials. That is something I’ve known about her since we met more than 15 years ago. That is a very natural thing she does. She’s good at it. And so, she found that and has continued to do it. People need to find that thing about themselves.

Judge Joun:  I think back to why I dismissed the thought initially when people suggested that I apply to be a judge, and it was because I thought, “I’m not the sort of candidate that they’re looking for with my background.” To those people who are interested in the job of being a judge but are afraid that they might be rejected for their diverse professional experience, I would ask them to reconsider. I think back to when my kids were really young, there was a movie called Ratatouille, and there was a line that said, “Anyone can cook,” and it didn’t mean that anybody can be good at cooking, it just meant that a cook can come from anywhere. And so, people who didn’t have the traditional resume of having gone to an Ivy League school, clerk for other federal judges, gone on to work for a prosecuting agency or work for a big law firm. I mean, that was the sort of the traditional path to the bench. I really thought I had no chance. I was definitely interested in the job, but I was also being realistic and looking at my resume. I thought this is not the kind of resume that they’re looking for. So, to those people who have similar backgrounds, and think that the bench is foreclosed to them, I would ask them to reconsider.

Judge Kelley: I would say two things: One is following up what Judge Joun just said and that is, people should not screen themselves out, particularly persons of color, who tend to do that. Whether you call it imposter syndrome, or something else, I would suggest to people that they turn down that noise in their head, because that’s what it is, noise. As the slogan for the lottery is, “You gotta be in it to win it.” You’ve got to apply. And if you have a job, that’s a great time to apply. If you have a job that you love, that’s an even better time to apply because you’re not screening yourself out, you are creating an opportunity to go on to something greater, but if you don’t get it—and sometimes we don’t get it—we’re still in a job that we love. I urge everyone not to screen themselves out, even for the second application or third time trying. Maybe it’s the New Yorker in me, and maybe because of my tough mother that I have developed a thick layer of skin. You can tell me “no.” It’s okay, because I still have a job, and it doesn’t diminish me. That’s why I would suggest people turn down that noise in their head because they are worthy of it. The second thing relates to what Judge Guzman was talking about—that people should guard their reputation in whatever it is that they do—whether it’s in their professional job title, or whether it’s in the work that they do outside of that job title. If you take on a responsibility, do it well, because that will be what people remember.


Continue on to Part II. 

Hon. Angel Kelley was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in September 2021. She previously served twelve years as a state court judge in both the District Court and the Superior Court. She was a trial attorney before joining the bench, in New York and Massachusetts, in both state and federal courts, with experience in both civil litigation and criminal work as a federal prosecutor and defense attorney.

Hon. Margaret R. Guzman was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in July 2023. She previously served for fourteen years as a judge in the Massachusetts District Court. Prior to judicial service, she was a sole practitioner in Worcester from 2005 to 2009; and from 1992 to 2005, she served as a public defender for the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Hon. Myong J. Joun was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in July 2023. From 2014 to 2023 he served as an Associate Justice of the Boston Municipal Court. Before the bench, he was in private practice for fifteen years focusing on criminal defense and civil rights litigation in state and federal courts.

Elizabeth L. Gardon is an associate at Todd & Weld, where she concentrates her practice on complex civil litigation matters. Gardon previously served as a law clerk to a state trial court judge in New York.