A subtle revolution as women lead the bench
Profile / Margaret Marshall
Before the black robe, there was the aquamarine silk pantsuit.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.