Presiding over her first case in the spring session of Dukes County Superior Court, Associate Justice Tina S. Page came up against what she described as “Island issues” right from the start.
“It took us three days to get a jury, because so many people knew one or more of the parties involved,” Judge Page told a Times reporter during a morning conversation in her office in the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown. Judge Page said that sort of community intimacy is not a hurdle in Springfield, where she serves as an associate justice in the Hampden Superior Court,
Because the volume of cases does not require it, Dukes County does not have a permanent Superior Court. Instead, Barbara J. Rouse, Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts, selects the judge who will travel to Martha’s Vineyard and sit for the Island’s spring and fall superior court sessions. A different judge is chosen for each sitting.
Judge Page already had a fondness for and familiarity with the Island from childhood visits with a friend and vacations with her husband.
“Each Superior Court judge fills out a ‘wish list”‘for assignments, and my wish came true,” she said.
Chief Justice Rouse assigned Judge Page to preside over the Dukes County Superior Court’s spring session that runs from April 5 through April 30.
“It’s a joy to be here,” Judge Page said.
Judge Page said there was a lot of work waiting for her when she arrived. “However, being able to drive along Sea View Avenue makes it worth it,” she said.
While discussing the differences between Hampden Superior Court, one of the Commonwealth’s busiest, and Dukes County’s, church bells began tolling the hour, almost as if on cue to remind her of Edgartown’s charms.
“I love this,” Judge Page exclaimed. “It’s calming.”
She recalled that last week, in the heat of legal arguments between two lawyers in sidebar conferences during a trial, “All of a sudden, the bells would ring, and it reminded me to stop and take a breath.”
The Superior Court has original jurisdiction in civil actions over $25,000, and in matters where equitable relief is sought. It also has jurisdiction over all felony matters. The docket might include cases of rape, murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, for example.
Since April 5, Judge Page has presided over two criminal cases, and began a new trial last Tuesday.
While Springfield’s crime rate is consistent year-round, the Island contends with a seasonal increase, she noted. And although murder is very rare on Martha’s Vineyard, recently there were four murders within a two-week span in Springfield.
Although the court docket included one drug case, Judge Page said she does not think that the Vineyard has experienced the ravages of crack cocaine that have affected other communities. She has noticed a lot of cases involving alcohol addiction, however.
Judge Page said it took three days to empanel her first jury. She described its members as “incredible, a great group of people” who did a good job handling a long and complicated trial.
She said it was admirable that many Islanders seemed disappointed, rather than relieved, when dismissed and not chosen to serve on a jury.
“The excuses we get from potential jurors are the bane of our existence,” Judge Page said. She added that she has heard enough of them to write a book when she retires.
Those Islanders who asked to be excused provided legitimate reasons she said that reflected Island life. Most cited work or transportation issues, such as travel plans and ferry reservations booked months ago. “It’s also interesting so many people are in the ‘sandwich’ generation, and have to deal with taking care of elderly parents and children or grandchildren,” she said.
The jurors who did serve, however, suffered some injustice, Judge Page pointed out. She noted that at least four jurors brought in pillows to sit on, in order to be comfortable on benches topped with cracked, worn, hard leather cushions.
“It’s interesting to be here for a long period of time,” Judge Page said. “You get a sense of what it’s like to live here, and the challenges year-round residents face. I have a new appreciation.”
“You’ve got to preserve this,” she added. “It’s been a pleasure to come here and clear my head.”
Judge Page is no stranger to the Island, however. She and her husband, Craig Grandison, a retired plastics engineer for Bayer Company, often visit her childhood friend, Anne Patrick, a resident of Oak Bluffs.
Judge Page grew up in New York City in Harlem. She moved to Springfield in 1979 to attend Western New England College School of Law and joined District Attorney William Bennett’s office in 1991. When an opening for a Superior Court judge became available, Mr. Bennett and Judge Constance Sweeney encouraged Ms. Page to apply. Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci appointed her to the bench in 1999.
“I always wanted to be a judge, but I didn’t think it would happen as soon as it did,” she said. “I was amazed when I was selected.”
Being seated on the bench has given her a different perspective, she said. “Looking down at the public in the courtroom, I see a sea of young people and grandparents,” Judge Page noted. “We’ve probably lost two generations of people, specifically Hispanics and people of color, to drugs.”
A difficult part of her job is public criticism, which judges cannot respond to because of canons that preclude them from discussing a pending case. The public is not always privy to the details, however, such as a defendant’s prior record, background, family history, and the level of violence used in committing the crime.
Judge Page said she finds it constructive to say to herself, “There but for the grace of God go I. If I hadn’t had the parents I had, I could be there. That’s no excuse, though, for some of the behavior.”
“The public doesn’t always understand we have laws and statutes we have to follow,” she added. “No judge is making off-the-cuff decisions about someone’s life.”
Judge Page said in her observations, “About 65 to 70 percent of defendants who appear before the court have a diagnosable mental illness, such as depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia.”
And for many of them, there may be a dual diagnosis of mental illness and drug addiction. Unfortunately, she said, although they may not belong in the State prison system, there are no other secure facilities in which they could be treated.
“It’s frustrating, because we don’t have options, and the underlying problems are not being addressed,” Judge Page said. “Just locking people up without giving them the option for treatment is not the answer. Most of the cases that are drug offenses or are drug-related stem from addiction.”
She finds that sitting on the bench requires listening intently with unwavering concentration to make sure rulings are correct, which is physically and mentally draining.
“When I get home at night and my husband asks what do I want for dinner, I tell him, do you know how many decisions I’ve made today? I don’t want to make one more,” Judge Page said with a laugh.
“Given all that, I love my job,” she added. “It’s challenging, but I enjoy it. I hope I can make a difference in somebody’s life.”