June 21, 2019 – BOSTON MA – The Boston Bar Association is pleased to announce that retired Massachusetts Superior Court Judge E. Susan Garsh is the 2019 recipient of the Haskell Cohn Distinguished Judicial Service Award. Established in 1975 and endowed by Mintz, Levin in honor of the 50th anniversary of Haskell Cohn’s admission to the bar, the Haskell Cohn Award is presented to a member of the Massachusetts Judiciary, or a resident of Massachusetts who is a member of the federal judiciary, who has distinguished himself/herself in a manner that calls for special recognition.
In recognizing Judge Garsh’s tenure on the bench, BBA President Jon Albano said, “She was dedicated to doing justice to all who came before her with an unwavering commitment to fairly applying the law in an intellectually rigorous, honest and practical manner. Her work and her legacy are an inspiration to lawyers and judges.”
Susan Garsh was born in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her father, who was trained to be a civil law judge in Germany, fled Nazi Storm Troopers and found work in a Fall River textile mill. He later married Susan’s mother, whose own father had escaped from pogroms in Russia. Susan’s family’s experiences ingrained in her at an early age the lesson that life, liberty and property are protected only where the rule of law prevails.
After graduating from Barnard College in New York in 1969, Judge Garsh spent a year working as a news reporter in South Africa, where her husband Howard was born and raised before he left the apartheid state to move to Boston. Back in the United States, the Vietnam War raged on and public and student protests dotted every major city. But in South Africa, Judge Garsh found a political and legal landscape that provided few protections for free speech. There were stories she was not allowed to report on; the security police questioned her after she spoke to foreign students; and the news she read was censored by local authorities.
After her time in South Africa, Judge Garsh returned home and made a decision that would shape the rest of her life. “I was given the advice that if I really wanted to make a difference,” she noted, “I should go to law school.”
Judge Garsh graduated from Harvard Law School in 1973 and started her career as a law clerk for the Honorable Levin H. Campbell, United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit. She then practiced law at the firm then known as Bingham, Dana & Gould, first as an associate, and then later as the first female partner in the firm’s litigation area, a rare professional accomplishment at the time for women who were practicing law and raising children. During her time in private practice, she worked on groundbreaking cases in First Amendment jurisprudence and commercial law, developing a well-earned reputation in and out of the firm as a lawyer who could handle the toughest of legal issues with unflinching integrity and intellectual rigor.
In 1993, Governor William Weld appointed Susan Garsh as an Associate Justice to the Superior Court. During her time on the Superior Court, she sat on virtually every nature of case, presiding over criminal trials, personal injury cases, commercial disputes, and constitutional claims. Lawyers who appeared before her, and her judicial colleagues, attest to both her intellect and to the practical judgment and commitment to fairness she brought to every case she heard.
During her judicial career, Judge Garsh served on numerous committees, including the Judicial Mentor Committee from 2009 – 2017 and the Committee to Revise the Code of Judicial Conduct, from 1998 – 2003. Her longest tenure was on the Judiciary/Media Steering Committee, which she sat on from 1995 through her retirement in 2017. During her time on the committee, she authored “Supreme Judicial Court Judiciary/Media Committees Guidelines on the Public’s Right of Access.” She also lectured at the Justice Academy of the Republic of Turkey and addressed judges visiting the U.S. from as far away as Uzbekistan.
BBA President Jonathan Albano has known Judge Garsh and her family for more than 30 years. “She was an important mentor to me from the very start and remains so to this day. One of my first projects at the firm involved a federal abstention issue, something I thought I knew a little about from law school. As the partner on the case, she challenged my thinking about the legal principles involved and how they applied to the facts of our case (an experience I suspect many other lawyers have had over the years, both before and after she became a judge). At the time, I was a first-year associate who planned to stay at the firm for just a few years before leaving to do ‘something more interesting.’ After this experience with her, I remember thinking that working with lawyers who knew far more than I did, yet were willing to share with me their thoughts about how to thoroughly analyze legal issues and represent our clients in a principled manner, would be plenty interesting.”
Throughout her career in private practice and on the bench, Judge Garsh’s time in South Africa served as a vivid reminder of the significance of the constitutional freedoms we enjoy in the United States. As a justice of the Superior Court, she presided over numerous naturalization ceremonies, seeing first-hand how equality and freedom continue to attract people to this state from around the world. She cherished the joy and emotion of those events, those rare judicial proceedings in which all participants are happy with the outcome. At her request, court interpreters translated the phrase “My fellow Americans, Welcome!” into twenty different languages so that she could begin her remarks with a welcome in the language of each of the immigrants present. At times she would convene naturalization proceedings outside, aboard the USS Massachusetts in the port of Fall River. On those occasions, before the court adjourned, 50 white doves were released to welcome America’s newest citizens.
Judge Garsh’s own personal experiences are never far from her thoughts. “I am a daughter, a granddaughter, spouse, and a mother-in-law of immigrants who came from very different places,” she said, adding “I think your sense of justice evolves when you have parents and grandparents who are fleeing places that have no justice.”
Judge Garsh’s lifelong commitment to liberty, justice, and equal opportunity reaches across continents, generations, and decades. It reverberates in the halls of the Massachusetts Superior Court and in the hearts and minds of those who came before her.
Following this impressive and distinguished career, Judge Garsh retired in 2017, allowing her to spend more time with her husband, their children Lisa and David, and three beautiful grandchildren.