A Courageous Career

Han Suh, 1L

On October 31, ACS and HLS Defenders hosted a lunchtime talk with Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.) who served on the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts for 17 years.

Judge Gertner shared that in the beginning stages of her career, the lack of experience or preexisting rigidity, in fact, enabled her to be more adventurous, creative, and unapologetic. As a result, as her first high profile case, she defended a radical lesbian feminist antiwar activist, Susan Saxe, accused of robbery and murder. Such daring selection of cases and arguments enabled her to further reflect her passion into her work. Her cases ranged from civil rights, sex discrimination, criminal defense to abortion.

Judge Gertner’s first meeting with Senator Ted Kennedy shows her commitment for social justice and her comradery with her peers. Before he decided to recommend her, Judge Gertner asked Senator Kennedy to consider recommending a lawyer with a criminal defense or a civil rights career for the bench even if he decided not to recommend her specifically. She reminded him that this would not only to reward the individual but also to validate and thank the litigators in such practice areas. This anecdote highlighted her loyalty to the community of lawyers who pursue liberalism and feminism.

On her experience on the bench, Judge Gertner noted that she was acutely aware of her new position and responsibility regarding the application of law. Although strict sentencing guidelines sometimes restricted her options in ruling, Judge Gertner took utmost care in hearing the individual stories of the accused and making sure they knew they were heard. Even long after conviction and sentencing, she followed the lives of those she sent to prison. People were always more than numbers for her, even when her job might have pushed her in the other direction.

Realizing she had much experience and passion to offer in a different capacity, Judge Gertner retired in 2011. She continues to promote civil rights through sentencing reform and critiques of mass incarceration. She is also a member of American Constitution Society.

Judge Gertner’s career and insights continue to inspire and encourage the progressive students at HLS.

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