On March 11, Senior Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Roderick L. Ireland shared his experiences hearing controversial and high-profile cases as a judge at the 16th annual William J. Brennan Jr. Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice.

Ireland, who, in 1997, became the first African American appointed to the court, has voted on two seminal same-sex marriage cases in Massachusetts: in 2003 he sided with the 4-3 majority in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which held that barring same-sex marriages violated the Massachusetts Constitution; in 2006, he was the lone dissenter in Cote-Whitacre v. Department of Public Health, in which the 6-1 majority upheld a 1913 law that barred non-Massachusetts residents from marrying in Massachusetts if their home state would not honor the marriage.

The high level of scrutiny and public attention paid to these cases carried beyond the court. “From the time that people became aware that Goodridge was going to be argued before our court, many, many, many people felt free to tell me what they thought,” Ireland said. Following the decision in Goodridge, Ireland and his fellow justices received a bevy of feedback, both positive and negative. "We received death threats and public reaction was not limited to just those in Massachusetts," Ireland said. "We and our decision were called every name imaginable."

Reflecting on these two cases, Ireland said he gained a new appreciation for the challenges faced by judges during and after highly public and controversial cases. He outlined the principles that he said guided him: impartiality in regard to both the political issues involved in a case and to public opinion; a commitment to the law and the court; and the resolve to move on once a decision is reached. “No matter how difficult the case, no matter how controversial the issue, and no matter how intense the scrutiny of the media," Ireland said, "the integrity of the court as an institution must remain a judge's paramount concern.”


Watch the full event (1 hr 3 min):

Posted March 19, 2010