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"I Want Another Adventure," Retiring Judge Nancy Gertner Says

By       Message Sherwood Ross       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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The federal judge who socked the FBI with a bill for damages totaling $101.7-million for railroading five men to prison where they spent 20 years for a murder they didn't commit has retired from the bench and is looking around for new challenges. "I have loved being a judge," said U.S. District Court Judge for Massachusetts Nancy Gertner, "but I want another adventure."

Gertner , who stepped down this month after 17 years on the bench during which she presided over a number of landmark cases, made her comments in a pre-recorded interview to air at 11 A.M. Saturday, September 10th on New England Cable News and at 11 A.M. on Sunday, September 11th on Comcast SportsNet. The broadcast also will be aired nationally.


"I actually have a book in me about judging, which I can't write until I leave the bench," she said. Speaking about her future, Judge Gertner said, "I want to be able to write, and think, and speak, and do something different. I'm of a generation that believes retirement is going to happen perhaps when I'm 90. I'm not close."

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Judge Gertner is the guest of "Educational Forum" of Comcast's SportsNet, produced by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover and hosted by Assistant Dean Diane Sullivan.


The eminent jurist noted for her legal victories in the fields of civil rights and feminism prior to her appointment to the bench in 1994, said, "If I wanted to do other things, international human rights work, I need to do it now. And given that opportunity that's what I'm going to do."


Judge Gertner was interviewed in connection with her book " In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate"( Random House), which has received lavish praise from critics and authors. Legal writer Jeffrey Toobin described it as "fascinating, fearless, and fun," and author Scott Turow termed it "A wonderfully readable and involving memoir."

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Gertner , who planned initially after graduating from Yale Law School to spend a few years practicing law before teaching the subject became so engrossed in her legal practice that she spent 24 years at it. Her first notable legal victory that turned heads was representing Susan Saxe, charged with participating in the robbery of the State Street Bank and Trust Company in Brighton. Saxe at the time was a senior at Brandeis who got involved with another woman and three men with the idea "that they were going to rob the bank for the purpose of getting money for the antiwar effort." When one of the men shot and killed a police officer, Saxe and others were charged with felony murder.


Only 29 at the time and unused to trying capital cases, Gertner recalled, "I said yes   because I had   to come to grips with my fears. I couldn't say, 'Oh, sorry, I'm afraid of doing this,' or, 'Oh, I don't have the experience.'" Saxe was 25 and wanted an all-woman defense team and turned to Gertner . "I had to talk to myself every day to get myself to argue with the judge and argue with the lawyers and get myself to a position of power. But that's what (Saxe) wanted and we were all doing it together. I write in the book that I didn't look much like a lawyer then, but none of us did. So it was that I just couldn't turn it down."


Judge Gertner goes on to say that the prosecution expected her to mount a defense that rationalized the bank robbery on grounds that the Viet Nam war was raging and anti-war activists believed they needed the money to push their cause. Accordingly, the prosecution held back two Saxe letters that were essentially confessions of guilt and rested its case, even though they lacked an ironclad identification of Saxe at the scene.  In a surprise maneuver, lawyer Gertner , instead of putting a parade of anti-war activists on the stand, got up and, she recalled, speaking in a nervous voice that sounded like Minnie Mouse, said, "We rest (our case) as well."


Judge Gertner said her victory in the Saxe case changed her life because "the experience of pouring your heart into something and of winning...not for gobs of money, but winning for a person, was seductive, and I couldn't give it up." After the Saxe case, she said, "my phone rang off the hook." The people who called largely were men accused of rape and they were not calling her because she was the best lawyer in Boston, she says, "but because I was a woman and they wanted my symbolism, not just my skills, and I was going to use that symbolism in the cases I cared about. I didn't want to use it in every case.  What I say is that if these guys couldn't have gotten a lawyer anywhere in the galaxy, then ethically I would have had to represent them. But that really wasn't the case."


Saxe said that when she began practicing in the Boston Municipal Court and the Suffolk Superior Court that people were saying "outrageous" things to her that exhibited "a profound lack of respect" for her as a woman. Once, when lawyer Gertner asked a judge if another woman could sit by her, the judge replied, "Gee, I thought one woman in the courtroom was bad enough.' "And I was a lawyer, a supplicant in his court. What do I do? Do I tell him this is an outrageous thing (to say)?"


Gertner says when she was in practice she dressed in red suits and was known for keeping files on the remarks of sexist lawyers that disgusted her. If nothing else, she was a stunning-looking advocate for the feminist clients she represented. The title of her book, " In Defense of Women," she added, also has to do with "the notion of putting women in places that you didn't anticipate that they would be, and the criminal and felony courts, and the murder cases, were the last bastion of male domination and I wanted to be there. I wanted to be there. "

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Gertner became a leader in knocking down barriers to women's progress in the work place and fighting sexual harassment. "You don't change something by suddenly taking the signs down off the door. It takes education, it takes affirmative changes and sexual harassment was a classic example of that."


"The signs were down on the door," she noted, "but if you're going to keep on demeaning me, I'm not going to feel welcome or comfortable here, and I'm not going to stay. And the courts began to realize that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination against women, and provided an impediment for women's progress, that's when the law began to change."


Gertner , typically, represented a woman partner in the brokerage firm of Merrill Lynch that, at the time she joined, was all male, and the parties "would have cakes in the shape of penises, or there would be a stripper who would come out of the cake." Gertner recalled, "She was a tough lady and would say, 'All right, I'm going to take this but she shouldn't have to take it' and thought it didn't matter in terms of money until one day she realized that 'to some degree the same attitudes...put their finger on her scale in terms of her money.'" What would happen is that male brokers could invite their clients to parties for the Bruins or the Celtics and the woman broker would not be invited. "There would be offerings to the men but not to the women, and when brokers left their book, as it was called, their accounts would be distributed, and she would not get as much (as the men) and all of a sudden she realized it really was affecting the bottom line, so she sued," Gertner said.

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
 

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