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Barbara Lenk: “When there’s a knock at the door, I answer it.”

(Photo courtesy Massachusetts Court System) by Mary-Lynne Bohn

Many years ago someone advised Barbara Lenk, ‘when there’s a knock on the door, it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to answer it. If you don’t answer, you’ll never know what’s on the other side.’

Throughout her life, Lenk has been answering that door, choosing to take opportunities that she may not have chosen for herself otherwise. Barbara Lenk recently retired as Associate Justice to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court after 27 years in the State court system. This time, however, the door shut behind her—Barbara turned 70 on December 1, the mandatory retirement age for judges in Massachusetts. She agreed to meet via Zoom to answer questions about how she got interested in the law, pivotal moments that helped shape her life, and her path to the highest court in the State.

Let’s start at the beginning: where were you born and raised? I was born in Kew Gardens General Hospital in Queens, New York, the only child in a blue collar family. My father was a bookbinder, my mother a housekeeper. My parents married late and couldn’t have more than one child, so I was it. They were determined that I was not going to earn a living that left callouses on my knees. I was going to have a better life, so that meant school, and it was taken very seriously.

After eight years in a horrible Catholic grammar school, I had a wonderful experience at an all-girls high school. The charge of the nuns who taught there, the Daughters of Wisdom, was to educate girls from blue collar families. They really wanted us to succeed and they made us work for it. But everything else is a footnote to what I learned there—they taught me how to write, how to read analytically. I still think of those days as some of the best education in my life.

The nuns really made us think, too. At coed schools, boys took all of the important jobs like president of the class or editor of the newspaper. We had to do all of those jobs because there were no boys to do them. We had to talk in class because there were no boys to talk. The nuns told us it was our job to leave the world not less and worse, but greater and more beautiful than when it was given to us. This exhortation has shaped my life.

What was the second most pivotal moment in your life?

My dad died suddenly when I was 16. His death changed everything. We didn’t have much money at the time, and my mother only had an 8th grade education. She went to work at my father’s bookbindery and took a job as a sewing machine operator. I felt like I went from age 16 to 40 basically overnight. Thankfully we had some social security and I got a scholarship to college; then later I was awarded a Danforth Fellowship to attend graduate school at Yale.

Where did you attend college and what was your major?

After high school I attended Fordham University. Fordham was a Jesuit school that was just beginning to integrate female students to its all-male campus. Of the 1,250 students enrolled when I entered, only 250 were women.

I majored in philosophy at Fordham, then went on to Yale for my Ph.D. My mom didn’t really know what philosophy was, or even law school for that matter, but she knew Yale was a big deal. I had planned to become a professor, but in order to work as one, I had to go where the jobs were. I didn’t want to leave my mother in New York City to take a job in Texas. I realized then that I didn’t want the life of an academic. I loved the subject, I loved the field, and I loved teaching, but I didn’t want to be economically dependent, so I started applying to law schools.

Why law school?

I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the relationship between religion and politics in the US, early American political thought. I had to go through US Supreme Court rulings to see how they handled separation of church and state cases, and I got interested in first amendment causes. I wanted to figure out some way to earn money while doing something interesting with my life, so I decided to apply to law school. I was accepted at Harvard, which was critical because I knew only students from the top five schools came out with a job.

What was your first job?

After I defended my dissertation and received my doctorate, I started work the very next day at a summer internship at Brown Rudnick, LLP. I absolutely loved it! I loved practicing law. I worked with every partner there and did every type of work.

Brown Rudnick must have liked me, too, because they offered me a job. Having interviewed at a variety of places, I knew I wasn’t going to fit in with a lot of firms. Brown Rudnick was a bunch of “roll up your sleeves” kind of lawyers. They didn’t care about superficial things like fancy suits, and I had a great experience working there as a litigator for 14 years. I did all kinds of litigation—education, First Amendment law, construction law, tax law, and worked in federal courts, state courts and appellates. I did everything.

If you enjoyed practicing law so much, why did you become a judge? I fell into being a judge the way I fell into so many things in my life—being in the right place at the right time. A woman I knew mentioned that Governor Weld was looking to appoint a qualified woman to the bench, and she encouraged me to apply. Weld appointed me to Massachusetts Superior Court and I served there for three years before he appointed me to the Appeals Court in 1995. Sixteen years later, Deval Patrick appointed me to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), where I stayed until I retired.

Applying for a position on SJC was a complex process. A judicial nominating committee appointed by the Governor had to review applications and make recommendations. You had to interview in front of the committee, then in front of the Governor’s legal counsel and finally with the Governor. I remember that the Governor called me on a Sunday afternoon, and I had my hands deep into a chicken at the time that I was preparing for dinner. My spouse, Debra [Krupp], answered the phone and said, “Oh my God, it’s Governor Patrick!” And I said, “Oh come on, who is it, really?” She said it really was the Governor and handed me the phone, and sure enough, he offered me the job.

Can you describe a day in the life of a judge?

It really depends on the court. In Superior Court, you ride the circuit and generally don’t stay at a court more than two to three months at a time, so you don’t get too connected to a community. I used to sit in Worcester quite a bit. The clerk is in charge of what judges would do on any particular day. Because you are moving around, you don’t have the control of the entirety of a case that you have in a federal court.

If you sat on a jury trial, you were always dealing with the lawyers. They would come in first-thing in the morning to start their arguments or try to settle their cases. The court day ended at 4 p.m., but there was always work to be done at home like writing motions or preparing instructions for the jury. It was a long and exhausting day.

In Superior Court, it seemed like someone always wanted something from you. It’s also very personally intensive, especially in criminal cases. If the jury finds someone guilty, you have to sentence them. Somebody’s always a victim, but there’s often more than just one victim in a courtroom. When you sentence someone, the whole family is affected.

The Appeals Court is very different from the Superior Court. Usually I would sit three times per month and write six to seven decisions, maybe more. At the appellate level, something has already happened so you are looking at the case for the second time. In lower courts, plea deals and civil agreements could happen outside of the courtroom, sometimes in the middle of a trial and occasionally while the jury was actually deliberating.

How important are jurors in the judicial process?

We really ask juries to do an impossible thing in trying to put a dollar value on suffering. You try to give them instructions on pain and suffering, but they also have to consider things like a victim’s diminished capacity to function, affected earning capacity, and whether a spouse has sustained damage as well. I don’t really recall many cases where I disagreed with the jury ruling. Instead, I often thought, ‘thank God I have a jury because I wouldn’t know how to decide this case.’

I had to give juries speeches about how important jury service is. We are not asked to do many things in this country for each other, but jury service is one of those things like military service where we really owe it to each other. It is such an important part of being a citizen. Imagine if it was you who was accused of a crime. Would you want jurors who are going over their grocery lists in their minds, or jurors who are seriously involved in the case?

I recall a case involving a young man from a large family; the father had died and the mother raised all of the children by herself. The young man came home from college, and on the way back to school was involved in a one-car accident that resulted in him going blind. It was a very emotional case. Your heart really went out to this family. Since it didn’t seem like the young man had done anything to cause the accident, the family sued the car company that something was wrong with the vehicle. I allowed them to bring the car inside the courthouse and disassemble it there because I didn’t know how else the jury was going to understand the testimony.

That jury didn’t really want to serve because it was a three or four week trial that went over the Christmas holidays, and it was very complicated. They deliberated for two to three days, and I could sometimes hear them really yelling at each other. When they came back in, they were all crying. They had ruled for the car company—as much as they wanted to side with their fellow citizen, they knew this was the right thing to do. Juries for the most part are very good, particularly about judging who is telling the truth.

You are known as being the first openly gay Supreme Court Justice in Massachusetts. How did you feel about that information being public?

I did not realize I was gay until I was 37 years old, when I fell in love with Debra. It happened while she was an associate at the firm where I was a partner. She was a tax lawyer, and I started spending time with her just like I spent time with other associates and partners. There’s no way we could have been together if she had stayed at the firm—it wouldn’t have been ethical. But when she decided to leave the firm to become a public defender, we were able to see each other.

I was completely stunned by our relationship. I had always gone out with men and never expected to fall in love with a woman. Once again, when life offers you things, you have to decide whether to open the door. I opened the door, and met someone who has been the most important person in my life. Falling in love with Debra was the third pivotal moment in my life.

Did you face any obstacles as a woman, or as a gay woman, in a male-dominated field?

Of course. There were only three women in my firm, and I was actually the first woman to be elected partner. I always got along very well with the partners, though, probably partly because I wasn’t married or didn’t have children at the time. Men of my generation like to think of themselves as liberated—compared to their fathers, they were—but they seemed to have a hard time dealing with women who were mothers. In fact, I used to advise women to have babies at one firm then make their career at a different one. Men often had a hard time figuring out how a woman could be a good mother and a good lawyer at the same time. Even now it feels like women who are mothers are still taking it on the chin.

Who have been your most influential role models?

I have known so many people and lots of wonderful lawyers. Donald Paulson was my mentor at Brown Rudnick. He was a corporate lawyer who had loyal friends and clients, a wonderful lawyer and man. I didn’t necessarily want to do the same work he did, but it was such an advantage to see how he negotiated. He always believed that you don’t “out shout” people, you “out think” them. He told me to never ask someone to do something that I didn’t know how to do myself, because how could I ever supervise them? If I made a mistake, I should own up to it immediately, then fix it.

No one could be a substitute for [Chief] Justice Ralph Gants. It was such a devastating loss. (Gants died suddenly of a heart attack in September 2020.) He was our friend, our leader, he was everything to us. It was very hard to adjust to life without Ralph. I really felt like I was the only one who could take over for him because I had been on the SJC longest, and I wasn’t going to be applying for the Chief Justice position myself.

Ralph reminded me a lot of my mentor in many ways. He was selfless, non-assuming, brilliant. After he died, I knew I was stepping into shoes that were so big I would never be able to fill them, but I knew I had to try. He could look at something and know immediately what the problem was. I would walk around a problem three or four times, read it twice, think about it, then come back and read it twice again before I could figure it out.

How have you made the transition to retirement?

I feel like the Road Runner cartoon, like I smacked right into the wall. Napping has become a big thing in my life—I take a nap every day and I love it. I have had some offers to come practice, and I will probably write an article about Ralph, and maybe a few other articles from time to time.

While I’m exploring the possibilities, I decided to go back to school at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement. There are 550 people in the program, all of whom are retired professionals from many different fields. They have so much to teach me, and I have so much to learn. I’m taking two courses right now, one on Jane Austin and the economics of her society, and a second course taught by Bayard Rustin, a gay man who helped organize the march on Washington in 1961. It’s wonderful.

How do you feel about some of the recent politics in the US Supreme Court?

I don’t care for the politicization of the courts. What I liked about Ralph and some of the justices before him was they made a real effort to find harmony, unanimity. Most of our decisions were unanimous decisions, unlike the US Supreme Court. I think divided decisions make it look more like courts are based on majority rule. There are principles involved in law, and whether you like it or not, precedent plays a role in the continuity of the court. I think in Massachusetts we’ve managed to be a real court.

How did you end up settling in Carlisle?

I used to live in Dorchester in a triple decker. We used to get The Boston Sunday Globe, and I would deliberately go out early and remove the real estate section so Debra wouldn’t see it. She is a very determined person, though. We wanted to have privacy, a pretty town, so we moved to Carlisle in 1990. We love the ice cream place, and love the fact that we don’t have anything in the way of big buildings. I really enjoy living here.

Looking back, how do you feel law has affected your life?

I can’t begin to say all the ways law has affected my life. The law gives us all kinds of opportunities to do good things, and it’s a shame when people don’t see that. The law allowed me to get married, to adopt my own children. If you just treat it as a way to make money, you miss the point. Doing work you like is very important. Doing work that will help people is very important, too. You can do both at the same time.

Published in The Carlisle Mosquito on March 5, 2021.

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