Long before there was a United States Supreme Court, before there was even a United States of America, the court today known as the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the law of the land here in the Bay State. Fifteen years ago, for the first time in the court's 300-plus year history, a woman was elevated to serve as chief justice.
Perhaps the word that best describes Margaret Marshall’s rise to chief justice of the oldest continuously functioning appellate court in the Western Hemisphere is “improbable.” Marshall was born and raised in small town in Apartheid-era South Africa.
"I grew up in a very small town," she said on Greater Boston in 2012. "I mean a tiny town, and when you think that he white population was so completely segregated from the majority of people – I mean the black population … "
And yet, by the time she entered university there, Marshall was knee-deep in the fight for equality for all South Africans.
"Everything was repressed," she said. "Nelson Mandela and all of those leaders were imprisoned. It was a tyrannical system."
In the late 1960s, Marshall emigrated to the U.S. She earned her law degree from Yale University and a masters in education from Harvard University. After stints in private practice and as general counsel for Harvard, she was nominated to serve on Massachusetts’s highest court.
"Generally people from the SJC come from either the Superior Court, the appeals court — she didn’t come from the court system," said Christopher Ianella Jr., who has served on the Governor’s Council — the body that approves judicial nominations in the Bay State — since 1984.
Despite her unusual background, Marshall was easily confirmed, becoming just the second female justice in SJC history. Three years later, then-Gov. Paul Cellucci put Marshall forward as his nominee for chief justice. This time confirmation was not such a breeze.
"Her’s was a little more difficult because no one really knew a lot about her," Ianella said.
And, says Ianella, it was contentious. Some on the council questioned her qualifications, and she was staunchly opposed by anti-abortion groups. Ultimately, On Oct. 12, 1999, Marshall was confirmed by a 6-3 vote.
"It shows how — 15 years ago — how much has changed in our state," Ianella said. "Arguing over abortion rights and now the first state with gay marriage, seems like things have changed for the better in this state at least."
The fact that Massachusetts was the first state to legalize gay marriage is, arguably, the most indelible aspect of Marshall’s legacy. Marshall wrote the majority opinion for the court’s controversial 4-3 decision in Goodrich v. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the case that legalized gay marriage here.
Current SJC Justice Margot Botsford, who served with Marshall, says Marshall took a particular interest in written opinions, and lauds her most famous one.
"It’s beautifully written, its clearly written and obviously its extremely quotable since every marriage I think in the commonwealth, every gay marriage certainly, quotes it," Botsford said.
Before her retirement in 2010, Marshall would write more than 200 opinions in her 11 years as chief justice covering a range of issues.
"She did notable things in the areas of child custody, divorce, juvenile rights, privacy," Botsford said.
And, says Botsford, Marshall also worked diligently to redefine the way the court goes about its work.
"[Marshall defined] a far more active role of the chief justice and the SJC in terms of overall responsibility for administration of justice, in the sense of how the trail court runs," she said. "Just much more active than was the model before."
And while there are those who criticize Marshall as having been too activist from the bench, Ianella says that he still believes she was the right woman to be the first woman for the job.
"It was more of a challenge, but as it turns out I think we all did a good job and at least six of us did the right thing," he said.
Margaret Marshall — the first female chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — was confirmed 15 years ago this week.