The hallmarks of excellence

Issue June 2012 By Richard P. Campbell

The president of the Massachusetts Bar Association has the singular privilege of recommending individuals to be honored for their service to the commonwealth as judges, legislators, journalists, practicing lawyers or just plain citizens. It is unfortunate that my tenure as president of the bar places a real time practical limit on my opportunity to recognize the legions of individuals who labor so long and hard for this state, their communities and our fellow citizens. I am impelled to write about four extraordinary individuals who have been honored this year by our association.

The Daniel F. Toomey Judicial Excellence Award

The trial lawyers of this commonwealth have been blessed by John Adams' insistence that life tenure for appointed judges be mandated by our state Constitution (a provision later included in the U.S. Constitution). An independent judiciary gives every judicial officer the chance to make decisions based on reasoned analyses of the facts and law free from public and political pressures and thereby to achieve just results. Dan Toomey famously dismissed very serious criminal charges brought against homeless (and helpless) vagrants who caused the fire that killed six Worcester firemen. Hiller Zobel -- in the face of intense national and international media pressure and the explosive passions of suburban parents who employed nannies -- sentenced Louise Woodward to time served in the shaken baby murder case and allowed her to return to England. Many years later the scientific foundation for shaken baby syndrome (and consequently the charges brought against Woodward) was discredited in the peer-reviewed medical literature. Judges Toomey and Zobel harkened to that higher call that we learned about in law school. You may remember a rhetorical question posed in your first year of legal studies that went something like this: "What should a judge do when the applicable law of the case is settled yet the judge believes it to be unconstitutional or plainly unjust." Judges Toomey and Zobel were models courage and integrity. They did not take the easy road; they did not wilt in the face of adverse public opinion.

Chief Judge Mark Wolf of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts was awarded the Daniel F. Toomey Judicial Excellence Award in May. No judicial officer in our state or federal courts is more deserving. Indeed, it is difficult to identify a single trial judge in this country who has done more to advance the integrity of our system of justice and to have done so against more formidable opposition. Think about it. Wolf -- not anyone else -- uncovered frank corruption of unspeakable dimensions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and brought that agency to heel. One need only compare the many presidents of the United States (and senators and congressmen) who bent to the will of the FBI over the decades. Wolf did not bend to a rogue agency; he conducted 10 months of hearings and authored a 660-page opinion in which he "found 'a long pattern of the FBI' ignoring the Constitution's requirement that it be 'candid with the courts' and prosecutors." An editorial in The New York Times, "The Judge Who Cracked the Bulger Case," appeared on June 29, 2011, and the Times editorial board rightly attributed the results of these hearings to Judge Wolf's "courage and persistence." The citizens of the United States owe Wolf profound respect and gratitude.

The Excellence in Legal Journalism Award

The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen is an icon for Irish Americans like me who treasure well-written prose and who pay attention to political, legal and cultural events in Ireland and the United Kingdom, where he was stationed for many years. "Legal" journalism is in many respects a boundless category, since the rule of law impacts all aspects, of our daily lives. In his writings over the years, Cullen has brought to his readers the circumstances of bad behavior, such as Phoebe Prince's heart-wrenching suicide following repetitive bullying by her schoolmates and the willful blindness of school administrators. He also exposed the risk of injury and death that would likely follow from the politically motivated application to the United States District Court for access to Boston College's Oral History Project interviews of former IRA leaders. But go back to that same corrupt FBI. Agent Thomas Daly "warned" (we now should say threatened) Cullen, who was then part of The Boston Globe's investigative team looking into the Winter Hill gang, that he might be "clipped" by Bulger if disclosures were published. Cullen had to move his family to a hotel for protection, but the story was published nonetheless.

Kevin Cullen has spent his entire career speaking truth to power. He is a model of courage and integrity.

The Legislator of the Year

The bar advocated for serious court reform, including the retention of a professional administrator, for many decades. Much credit goes to past presidents Paul Sugarman, Leo Boyle and others who studied the judiciary, identified necessary improvements and presented a comprehensive plan of action. Nonetheless, success depended on a legislator who stuck with the Massachusetts Bar Association, battled against entrenched interest groups, and delivered last summer long-awaited court reform. Every lawyer in the commonwealth should raise a glass to Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo. Without him, court reform would still be an idea.

The Annual Dinner Keynote Speaker

Giving a keynote address to the state bar association, as with a university, is an honor. This year, however, the honor was bestowed on the Massachusetts Bar Association. Victoria Kennedy, legal scholar, accomplished practicing attorney, and renowned philanthropist, took time from her frenetic schedule to speak to our members and her colleagues at the bar. Kennedy is a person of consummate honor and integrity. To say that she manifests grace under fire does not do her justice.