Judge Roderick Ireland reflects on his career


To say Roderick Ireland’s career has a story is like saying a library has a story – it does, but it doesn’t do justice to the breadth and depth it contains.

The first black justice on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and later the first black chief justice, Ireland presided over a number of landmark cases during his 37-year career as a judge in the state. Perhaps most notably, Ireland was a member of the four-judge majority in a case called Goodridge v. Department of Public Health. The 2003 case made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage and set off a domino effect on other states that passed similar laws in the years that followed.

Roderick Ireland, eminent professor of criminology and criminal justice. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Goodridge, as scholars and parlor historians of LGBTQ rights call it, was a monumental decision, one that ultimately paved the way for nationwide marriage equality in the United States. But ask Ireland which cases stand out among the many he has heard, and he will recall the cases from the start of his career as a juvenile judge alongside Goodridge.

“I’m proud of every case I’ve sat on,” he says. “I often tell people when I think about my legal career, the cases that really stand out tend to be when I was a trial judge, making decisions about child custody. These cases stand out as much as the Goodridge cases – they were real kids with real lives, and I knew that any decision I made would impact this child, this family. They were very important to these people.

Ireland, which is a Emeritus Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern, began his legal career in 1969 as a district legal services attorney. In 1971, he and Wallace Sherwood, an attorney who also taught at Northeastern’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, founded the Roxbury Defenders Committee, a free public defense program. Prior to its establishment, there was no Public Defender’s Office in Roxbury. Residents of the Boston neighborhood received legal representation from the Massachusetts Defenders Committee.

He served as a judge in Boston Juvenile Court from 1977 to 1990, then served on the Massachusetts Court of Appeals from 1990 to 1997. In 1997, he was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and in 2010, it was named by the time. Govt. Deval Patrick as Chief Justice. He held that position until 2014, when he turned 70, the state’s mandatory retirement age for judges.

Ireland taught at Northeastern throughout his tenure as a judge, teaching in both the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the School of Law. Next year will mark his 45th at the university, where he began as an adjunct professor in 1978. Throughout this time, Ireland has brought criminal justice students to the courtrooms he presided over, offering them a chance to experience the justice of the state first hand. system.

“Part of my approach has always been to bring students into courthouses and use them as classrooms,” he says. “It’s one thing to read a case in class. It’s quite another to be there to hear and see it. It is truly experiential learning. It’s real life.

All of this helps Irish students think about the overarching questions at the heart of his lessons: Is the criminal justice system fair for everyone? Is it right ?

The two branches of his career — teaching and judging — informed and impacted each other, Ireland says.

“Students bring a fresh point of view on just about every subject. They ask questions, and that keeps you sharp. To teach case law to students, you really need to know and master it, understand it, and apply the case law in your judicial work. The two things kind of feed each other. Students are curious, they are inquisitive, and those are very good traits to have about the law. It was a big advantage for me to teach while I was on the bench,” he says.

But, there is a third branch in Ireland’s career. After coming off the bench in 2014, he was asked in 2017 to advise the Massachusetts Legislature on criminal justice reform legislation, and in 2018 he was asked by the Cambridge City Police Department to review its policies and procedures in a highly controversial matter.

Most recently, in 2021 and 2022, he served as a city councilor for Springfield, Massachusetts, as it worked on sweeping reforms to its police department. The department has been the subject of a scathing 2020 report from the US Department of Justice, in which investigators found that officers often used excessive force without accountability.

Ireland, who is the third generation of her family to grow up in Springfield, was raised by her mother – who was the first African-American person to teach in the town of West Springfield – and her father, who was a house painter.

So when Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno asked if Ireland would serve as a special adviser on reforming the police department, he signed on.

“I thought at the time that we were only dealing with two parties: the Springfield Police Department and city officials dealing with the Department of Justice,” says Ireland. “I quickly understood that it was much broader than a negotiation between two legal entities. There were all kinds of issues and actors involved: legal issues, political issues, police issues, trust issues in the community. If your community doesn’t trust the police, whatever the police will accept will not work. The community must join. »

So Ireland has embarked on a very specific collaborative process to transform the way Springfield officers police and record their work. The result of the two-year process is a 69-page consent decreesigned in April, which includes nearly 300 provisions, such as requiring officers to record all uses of force and creating a watchdog body, a monitor, to monitor police and investigate the use of force to strength.

Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a interview with WBUR that “real and lasting change does not happen quickly”.

“Institutional reform is complex and requires diligence and perseverance,” she said. “Implementing the requirements of this executive order in a sustainable manner will take years, not months.”

Even getting to this point was a “slow, tedious and time-consuming process” in which Ireland alternately served as a “psychologist, neutral observer, conscientious spokesperson”, he says. It involved weekly meetings and feedback from community members and resulted in an agreement that may well serve as a model for police departments across the country.

“The significance of this, in part, is that this is the first consent decree signed between a police department and the Department of Justice during the Biden administration,” Ireland says. “I’m very honored to have participated, and the Springfield Police Department is going to be much better than what it was in the past.”

As his work in Springfield illustrates, Ireland has been involved in mediating or negotiating challenges that come up time and time again in the United States: police reform, child protection, LGBTQ freedoms. And he worries about how the growing politicization of the courts may affect those most vulnerable in each of these challenges.

“I’ve always viewed the courts as the branch of government that can defend groups that may not be popular or may be disenfranchised,” he says. “The courts are there to defend them, to ensure that they benefit from all their constitutional rights, whatever their situation, their social status or the charges brought against them.

“Unfortunately, what I see these days is that the courts are becoming more and more politicized. I look at our Supreme Court of the United States and I just don’t have the same confidence in it that I did when I arrived. Judges are supposed to be immune to politics; they’re supposed to call it how they see it regardless of politics. I’m not sure that’s the case now. »

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