Special Section: Taking the Bench

Getting it right

A judge's life is varied and rewarding. And a bit lonely.

In a Starbucks near Harvard Law School, on a November evening, Geoffrey C. Packard '73 blends in easily among the latte crowd. With a red-checked flannel shirt and jeans, longish hair flopping over one eye and the relaxed demeanor of a guy who's listened to his share of Cream albums, he looks like any number of other former-hippie-types-turned-professionals. He could pass for an aging techie, perhaps, or a gentleman carpenter.

Illustration
Dan Page

Except that if he wanted to, Packard could insist you call him "Your Honor." Behind his retro-rebel appearance, Judge Packard carries the authority of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

But Packard's not the sort to flaunt his position. He relishes moments when nobody recognizes him as a trial judge in the Massachusetts district courts, a job he took three years ago after 30 years as a public defender in the Boston area. If there's one thing he misses these days, it's the camaraderie of being just another member of the bar.

"Except with my closest friends, I'm aware there's a little bit of distance with people now," he says, sipping a decaf coffee. "People aren't going to call me up to go out, or drop by to shoot the breeze. Lawyers can't be seen hanging out in judges' chambers." His laugh carries a slight ache of nostalgia.

Does he enjoy his new view from the bench? He pauses.

"Mostly, yeah, I do," he says. "And I say 'mostly' only because I so loved my other job." There are many pluses: the interesting variety of cases, from criminal to landlord-tenant to unemployment and pension appeals; the intellectual challenge, even in misdemeanor trials; and, most of all, the import of making decisions that affect people in their daily lives. And he finds he's more relaxed than he was when he was a trial lawyer.

But there are downsides. For more than three decades, counting two years at HLS in what was then called the Harvard Voluntary Defenders, Packard would return to the office after a brutal day in court to swap war stories with a close-knit team of fired-up public defenders. "It was 12 to 15 people every day, very supportive, always kicking stuff around. It was very collegial," he muses. Packard puts his hand on his cheek, leaning on his elbow. "One thing about this job is that it's very isolating."

Isolation. Staggering caseloads. Stacks of paperwork to read each day. Underfunded and understaffed courts. The weighty responsibility of passing judgment on other human beings. Work that is widely misunderstood, especially in an age when "judicial activism" is a catchphrase. The world of judging carries particular burdens.

Yet Packard and others say the good far outstrips the bad. Hard data on judicial job satisfaction is difficult to come by: Neither the American Bar Association nor the American Judges Association can point to any such studies, in contrast to countless studies on lawyers' professional satisfaction. But among the hundreds of HLS grads who serve as federal and state court judges, at least, the step up to the bench has been gratifying. They cite the enormous breadth and depth of their work; the sense of purpose, even nobility, in upholding the rule of law; the joy of working with dedicated colleagues and committed law clerks. The workload is daunting, but there's more flexibility in their schedules now than there was in private practice.

"I love every minute of it," says Robert J. Cordy '74, a justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, whose tasks include administrative oversight of the commonwealth's courts, outreach to schools and bar associations, and, of course, appellate review of the Bay State's most pressing issues, including 2003's landmark decision legalizing gay marriage, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.

"It's wonderful," says Margaret M. Morrow '74, a U.S. District Court judge for the Central District of California, despite the fact that she works much more than she did when she was a lawyer in Los Angeles immersed in bar activities, including serving as the first woman president of the State Bar of California, in 1993-94. "I've learned more in the last eight years than probably the 15 to 20 years before that."

Four years ago, when he was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, Harris L. Hartz '72 was so shell-shocked by how completely the job absorbed his time and energy that he wondered if he had made a mistake. Then he noticed a couple of retired judges in their 80s who came into the court on a regular basis, looking to help out, working essentially for free.

"They wanted to get assigned cases; they wanted to write opinions," recalls Hartz, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. "That meant a lot to me in my first couple of years. Because frankly, it was so hard, so consuming, I was not enjoying myself. I thought, If people can do it for no pay in their 80s, there must be something good about it." Now that he's settled in, he understands the mysterious draw of the position.

So what is it that makes judging such a great gig?


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