Judge Angela M. Ordoñez: From modest beginnings to the Massachusetts judiciary

Issue February 2010 By Tricia M. Oliver

A strong-willed daughter of a Colombian immigrant, the Hon. Angela M. Ordoñez took advantage of all opportunities along the way to reach her current position at Norfolk Probate and Family Court, where she has served as associate justice since 2003.

Ordoñez is highly respected by her colleagues on the bench and bar alike. She is described as a "hands-on" judge who is "amazingly organized," always up on things and ready to get things done.

This year, MBA President Valerie A. Yarashus named Ordoñez co-chair of the association's Diversity Task Force. Like with all her professional endeavors, Ordoñez has hit the ground running and she and co-chair April English, an assistant attorney general, have orchestrated broad-based efforts to diversify future generations of Massachusetts bar practitioners.

Her journey to the law

Ordoñez was raised by her single mother and grandmother and taught herself English by the time she was four. Ordoñez' favorite childhood pastime of watching television and movies helped refine her English and provided her with the initial inspiration to pursue law as a career.

The 1978 film "And Justice for All" was her favorite. She was fascinated by Al Pacino's character and how he decided to go against the seemingly insurmountable trail of corruption. "It really blew away my limited perceptions of what you could do as a lawyer."

Hungry to learn more about the law as a teenager, but naïve as to how, she found her chance to do so unexpectedly. Ordoñez heard her favorite teacher, Mrs. Marion Goodman, refer to her husband as a lawyer. She stayed after class and asked Goodman if her husband would mind meeting with her. Attorney Elliott Goodman agreed, and after meeting the bright teenager, helped her secure a volunteer role in the Natick Probation Department.

Goodman recalls that he was "quite impressed" by Ordoñez. "She didn't come in just looking for a job. She was really searching for what she might want to do with a career in law," he said.

Through that pivotal volunteer opportunity, Ordoñez developed great contacts and enjoyed what she described as "a rich experience to receive an insider's view of the court system."

Although she found the work of probation officers fascinating, she ultimately took the advice of her early mentors and attended Northeastern University School of Law.

Staying grounded

Ordoñez had been told that law school could be all-consuming, so she decided to engage in other experiences to keep her grounded during her first year. She volunteered at Massachusetts General Hospital's pediatric cancer unit. In college, she also became a volunteer for the Battered Women's Hotline. With both, she made a positive impact and gained a welcomed diversion to her studies.

After obtaining her law degree in 1989 and taking the bar, Ordoñez joined the Family Law Unit with Greater Boston Legal Services and worked there for nearly four years. After spending many hours trying cases in the Suffolk County Probate Court, she was approached by one of the clerks there regarding openings for assistant register positions.

"My initial response was, 'But I'm happy with what I'm doing,'" said Ordonez, who ultimately realized this was an opportunity she couldn't let pass by. Ordoñez went on to spend seven years in the clerk's office, where she gained a variety of professional contacts and mentors who would help and encourage her to apply for a judgeship.

On her birthday in 1998, Ordoñez learned that she made a short list of serious contenders for a seat on the bench. Sixteen months later, Ordoñez was nominated by then Gov. A. Paul Cellucci and Lt. Gov. Jane Swift.

At age 37, Ordoñez was sworn in as the first member of the Massachusetts judiciary to be both Hispanic and openly gay. She was seated as an associate judge in the Nantucket Probate Court and took great pride in her "ability to make my mom and grandmother proud beyond their dreams." Joining her family members in the audience that afternoon were Ordoñez' many colleagues and friends, including Mr. and Mrs. Goodman, whom she recognized in her speech.

After serving on the bench in Nantucket for several years, she was appointed to the Norfolk Probate and Family Court in 2008. For that ceremony, Ordoñez had requested that Gov. Deval Patrick consider holding it in the Norfolk Probate and Family Court in Canton. She also asked him to alter the official ceremony to accommodate more time for court employees and their families to meet with and have photographs taken with the governor.

"Probation officers were there with their children," said Patricia Gorman, from Gorman and Greenberg in Canton and president-elect of the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers. Also on hand was Probate and Family Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, who first worked with Ordoñez when Carey practiced law and Ordoñez was an assistant register. "Judge Ordoñez has always had a strong commitment to the system and the public we serve," said Carey at the 2008 ceremony.

"She treats all individuals - litigants, lawyers and staff - with courtesy and dignity," said Carey.

Today, like in 2008, Carey credits Ordoñez as one of the "shining stars on the Probate and Family Court bench."

A long-awaited victory

Nine years after she had first made the initial transition from the bar to the bench, Ordoñez realized one of her proudest professional moments. In April 2009, Kurvin Richardson was found guilty of first degree murder in the homicide of Noemi Roman.

While at GBLS, Ordoñez had represented Roman's parents, who sought custody of Roman's son following her death. Sergio Roman was only a toddler when his mother was murdered in 1990. Roman was beaten and stabbed and left to die while her two-year-old clung to her lifeless body.

Ordoñez explained that the horrific case always haunted her and she did whatever she could to keep investigators focused on solving this heinous crime. Closure came for Roman's family, but also for Ordoñez, with Richardson's conviction nearly two decades following the murder.

Her persistence to keep investigators focused on this case is one of the accolades for which Ordoñez will be honored in June with the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers Distinguished Jurist Award. Gorman remarked that Ordoñez' work with that case displayed a remarkable dedication to the family of Roman and really epitomized Ordoñez' character and "what you can really do with a law degree."

Raising the bar

She will no doubt continue to exhibit that character with her latest volunteer endeavor with the MBA's Diversity Task Force. Among the many efforts of the task force, she and co-chair English (see profile, p. 11) are particularly focused on the success of the Tiered Community Mentor Program.

The program enlists an innovative approach that teams up practicing minority attorneys with diverse students in high school, college and law school. It is aimed at exposing inner-city students to opportunities in the legal community that would otherwise not exist for them.

Ordoñez credits the commitment of those involved, including Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Roderick L. Ireland. "We all want to see the program flourish," she said.

The program has gained traction since its Oct. 29 kick off. A total of 40 participants have been matched into 10 groups, where the lawyers will serve as mentors, the high school students will take on the role of mentees, and the students in law school and college will take on dual roles.

Regarding the other goals of the task force, Ordoñez said, "We need to make sure that we are as inclusive as possible and make ourselves available to all Massachusetts attorneys. Inclusivity is paramount."

"The MBA serves as the big tent for those smaller groups of attorneys," she said. "I appreciate the MBA's role in pulling the threads together with all the groups."

Ordoñez has been known to pull together a thread or two of her own in the court room. "She leads by example in reminding us each day about how a person who speaks limited, little or no English may need a little extra attention and understanding," said the Hon. Christina Harms, a long-time colleague of Ordoñez in the Norfolk Probate and Family Court.

"I am truly honored to have her as my colleague, and I know the members of the Norfolk bar will echo my praises. I'm often told by attorneys how glad they are to have Judge Ordoñez assigned to their cases," Harms added.