A subtle revolution as women lead the bench

Profile / Margaret Marshall

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Before the black robe, there was the aquamarine silk pantsuit.

It garnered a compliment from the judge when lawyer Margaret Marshall walked into court one day in the mid-1980s. Pantsuits were seldom seen in court back then, and it would be a few years before a landmark gender-bias study discouraged comments that might suggest a lawyer's wardrobe deserved more attention than her words.

But she took the compliment with grace - and then launched into an argument so solid and smart that her opponent recounts feeling momentarily tongue-tied.

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In her new post as chief justice of Massachusetts' highest court, Margaret Marshall undoubtedly will have to call upon that same combination of intellect and elegance, as she and the 12 other women who preside over state supreme courts continue a subtle but significant revolution in America's judiciary.

Just four years ago, the number of women who held the top judicial post in their states was about half what it is today, and the number of women serving as justices on these courts has quadrupled in the past 15 years, to 92.

If women's authority on the bench is escalating rapidly now, it comes after decades of struggle. And while each judge brings a perspective influenced by many factors other than gender, observers say the women are collectively influencing the whole legal landscape, bringing a range of issues - from bioethics to the circumstances of pregnant substance abusers - to the forefront.

"Having a woman at high levels of the judiciary is an excellent thing because it allows all the range of our citizenry to contribute to the administration of justice," says Gina Hale, a state judge in Vancouver, Wash., and president of the National Association of Women Judges.

In becoming the first woman to head the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the oldest continuously operating appellate court in the Western Hemisphere, Marshall has planted another mile-marker on the path to women's equality in the legal profession. In an interview last month with the Monitor, Chief Justice Marshall paid tribute to the women who have gone before her, but she also spoke of her own responsibilities to the people who will come after her, both men and women, "so that they will feel comfortable with women in leadership positions."

Lawyers who appear before the tribunal, though, may not always feel comfortable facing rapid-fire series of questions from Marshall. But people who know her say diplomacy, humor, and warmth pervade her interactions.

"When she had her [confirmation] hearing, a building custodian in the courts testified on her behalf," says Bonnie Sashin, communications director at the Boston Bar Association (BBA), who has known Marshall since 1988. "She can genuinely deal with the high and mighty and the meek and humble alike."

Marshall's nomination was not without controversy, though. Cardinal Bernard Law raised questions about possible anti-Catholic bias, and others asked if Marshall had enough trial experience. A graduate of Yale Law School, she had practiced corporate law and served as Harvard University's vice president and general counsel before being appointed an associate justice of the state's high court in 1996.

Many of the concerns were quickly allayed, and by Nov. 1 Marshall was presiding over her first case. The disputes she has heard so far have included tussles over insurance rates and a divorced couple's frozen embryos.

Marshall says she feels the confirmation process was fair, even welcomed. "The more intense the scrutiny ... the greater the sense of assurance the citizens can have that they really did look at every aspect of my qualifications."

Colleagues say attentiveness to dissenting opinions is part of Marshall's style, whether she's running a meeting or working through a ruling. "She attempts to incorporate all views in her thinking," says Associate Justice Neil Lynch.

That stems in part from her deep respect for the independent judicial system that originated in Massachusetts. In her spacious office, Marshall points to a framed photograph of the courtroom where she now presides. It's a straightforward shot of the nearby chamber on the 13th floor of the Suffolk County Courthouse in downtown Boston, where the men who have come before her stare down from portraits along the Philippine mahogany walls.

At the end of her term as president of the BBA, long before she considered becoming a judge herself, she was offered a gift and asked for the photo. "This court has always symbolized for me the great historical leap forward ... when John Adams drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, establishing for the first time ever a separate, independent branch of government," she says. Not all countries give judges the authority to test legislation against individual rights, as the US did in adopting the Massachusetts model, she explains.

Marshall is proud that her native South Africa followed that model when it formed its post-apartheid Constitution. She first tested her leadership wings as a student organizer in the movement against apartheid, and she has watched South Africa's development with great interest since transferring her activism to the United States as a graduate student in 1968.

She entered law school not so much with an eye on a career as to learn about her new country. (She also laughs that the television show "Perry Mason" played a role.) But from the very first day, she says, she fell in love with the profession.

Marshall was admitted to the bar in 1976, one year before becoming a US citizen. She quickly became a role model for other women. Among the items that could overstuff a rsum for gender-equity advocacy: She was an early member of the Women's Bar Association in Massachusetts in the late 1970s and raised money for a major gender-bias study in the state. During her tenure on the state's judicial nominating committee, more women became judges than ever before.

When Marshall began presenting results of the gender study to partners at law firms in the late 1980s, Ms. Sashin says, "she had so much good judgment and smarts and wit, she could make people think of issues that, if another person raised them, might come across as sounding threatening."

Marshall sees her new position as part of a continuum. There's been "a whole series of chains of events that really made it possible for everyone participating in the judicial system to understand that gender doesn't really make a difference," she says. "That's been a learning process for all of us."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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