Retired Mass. Supreme Court Justice wins AJS Harley Award

Issue June 2005

Benjamin Kaplan, retired justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, has been chosen to receive the American Judicature Society Herbert Harley Award for lifetime contributions to the administration of justice.

“The Massachusetts legal community has greatly benefited from Justice Kaplan’s talents,” said Massachusetts Appeals Court Associate Justice Gordon L. Doerfer, a member of the AJS Executive Committee. Doerfer, who recommended Kaplan for the award, regards Kaplan “as a treasured colleague on the bench and a marvel of energy and intellect at the age of 94.”

The AJS is a national nonpartisan organization that works to improve the administration of justice and public confidence in the American legal system. The Harley Award, named after AJS founder Herbert Harley, is reserved for individuals whose efforts and contributions result in substantial, long-term improvement to the justice system at the state level.

Justice Kaplan helped to improve the rule of law even before his appointment to the court. As a Harvard Law School professor, Kaplan was regarded as an enthusiastic and humorous teacher and was very popular with many of his students, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He co-authored Materials for a Basic Course in Civil Procedure which, when published in the 1950s, modernized the teaching of civil procedure. In the 1960s, Justice Kaplan revolutionized civil procedure law with his work as reporter of the Advisory Committee on Civil Rules. Most notable was the amendment to Rule 23 that allowed class action lawsuits for small claims, a groundbreaking reform in that it allowed litigation for racial equality.

In 1972, Justice Kaplan crossed from teacher to jurist with his appointment to the Supreme Judicial Court. Over the years, he became known as a master of opinions, defining the law with a unique clarity. Currently, he is still serving the judiciary as a recall justice on the Massachusetts Appeals Court.