By Frannie Carr
Feb. 22, 2012
BOSTON — In what marks a rare personal defense of the reasoning behind a judicial ruling, a recently retired Massachusetts judge is speaking out about her controversial decision to order a mentally ill woman to have an abortion and undergo sterilization.
Very few cases that end up in court are simple … but the one that entered Judge Christina Harms’ Norfolk probate courtroom last fall was particularly complicated.
"I realized from the moment the case walked into my courtroom that it had the potential to become the perfect storm of controversy," she told WGBH News.
The case, which includes a number of complex ethical and legal questions, centered on a 32-year-old woman with schizophrenia identified as “Mary Moe” in court documents. Moe was pregnant for the third time. Her parents, who already had custody of one of Moe's children, petitioned to have their daughter declared incompetent.
After witnessing "substantial delusional beliefs," Harms ruled that the Moe was indeed incapable of making her own decisions.
The next step, she said, was to apply what she called a "well-established" test that asks the judge to review as much evidence as possible and then determine what the person's judgment would be if she had been competent. Harms found that Moe would have decided to terminate the pregnancy.
Harms then went one step further, directing that Moe be sterilized to, as she put it, “avoid this painful situation from recurring in the future.”
In January, in a ruling that got widespread media attention, a state appeals court overturned Harms’ decision, basically saying that she overreached her authority.
Now Harms is defending her decision.
She called the appeals court ruling sensational and insulting, saying, "For the appeals court to basically mock me does not promote confidence in the judiciary."
Harms, who retired from the bench last month, also has issues with the institution that was to become her next employer. After her ruling sparked national controversy, Boston University's School of Law rescinded a job offer it has previously put on the table. Harms said BU’s decision undermines the judicial independence in the American legal system.
"Do you want any judge, in any case that you care about, in any state in this country to be thinking — instead of thinking 'What’s the right decision in this case, what are the facts, what is the law' — to be thinking, 'Hmm, how’s this decision going to play out, either in the public or for my next career?' Absolutely not," she said.
The college said it never made a formal job offer — but has acknowledged that the controversy whipped up by her ruling contributed to the decision to take Harms out of contention for the job.
Harms said she has no interest in trying to force BU to hire her. Her speaking out, she said, is about principle: "I’ve spent 23 years as a judge, valuing and living by the principle that judges should make the best decision and an honest decision, not based on popularity."
Once she feels she’s made that point, Harms said, it will be time to move on.
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.