Judge Barbara J. Rouse offers students a view from the bench

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The Dukes County Court House. — Michael Cummo

A group of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School students appeared before Superior Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Rouse at the Dukes County Courthouse Thursday. However, unlike many of the citizens that appear before Judge Rouse, they were invited, not summonsed.

Last week, Chief Justice Rouse hosted a forum to provide students with a firsthand account of her life as a judge and a lesson in civics and the state’s judicial system. Her visit to the Dukes County Courthouse was part of her farewell tour of Massachusetts courthouses before she retires in December, at the mandatory age of 70.

Former Oak Bluffs School principal Gerry Moriarty made the arrangements for the forum, attended by 20 Island students. They were accompanied by history teacher Olsen Houghton, who is also the student government faculty advisor, and joined by school superintendent James Weiss and high school committee member Lisa Reagan of Oak Bluffs.

Superior Court Clerk Joe Sollitto introduced Judge Rouse, noting that he first met her in 1981 when she appeared as defense counsel for a case in the Dukes County Superior Court. At that time she was a partner in the law firm Csaplar & Bok.

“I’m sad about letting Judge Rouse go,” Mr. Sollitto said. “She has been a great judge and a superior leader.”

Governor Michael S. Dukakis appointed Ms. Rouse to the bench in 1985 as an associate justice in the Massachusetts Superior Courts, Mr. Sollitto said. She returned to Edgartown in her new role in 2002 to preside over a session of Superior Court. Judge Rouse was named Chief Justice of the Superior Court in 2004 and reappointed to another five-year term in 2009.

Before turning the forum over to Judge Rouse, Mr. Sollitto welcomed Edgartown Attorney Martin Tomassian, the Dukes County Bar Association president, and about a dozen of the association’s attorneys seated on the jury benches. Mr. Sollitto also introduced District Court clerk magistrate Liza Williamson and Cape and Islands assistant district attorneys Laura Marshard and Brian Glenny.

“It’s a true pleasure to be back on Martha’s Vineyard,” Judge Rouse said.

Jury service highly recommended

Ms. Rouse showed students a video that is viewed by all prospective jurors statewide. She said jury duty and voting are two of the most important services a citizen can perform.

“I have found over the years that no matter how reluctant a juror is to serve, I have never encountered one that was disappointed or resentful about serving on a jury afterwards,” Judge Rouse said following the video. “Many have said they find the experience empowering, and that it made them feel a part of democracy.”

She asked Dukes County Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin, who is now presiding over the fall session of Superior Court, whether he had served on a jury. He said he was impaneled on a jury shortly after he was first appointed to the bench in 1989, for one of the state’s first cases involving domestic abuse and violence.

“As a new judge, it was the best experience I could have had,” Judge Chin said. “It renewed my confidence in the jury system and the responsibility of my fellow jurors.”

Ms. Rouse noted that jury duty has changed for the better over the years. “When I started as a lawyer 30 years ago, judges asked jurors to sit for the duration of the trial and keep their mouths shut, and then listen to the judge tell them about the relevant law,” she said.

Now, she added, more and more judges are allowing jurors to take notes, to ask questions of witnesses in civil cases, and to receive written or taped instructions to involve them in the decision-making process.

“I hope you will get the experience to serve as a juror someday,” she told the students. “I think you will enjoy it and take away a lot from it.”

Judge Rouse explained that the Superior Court handles both criminal and civil actions with a value over $25,000. There are 82 judges in the Superior Court who circulate around the state’s 24 courthouses.

She pointed out that Massachusetts judges are appointed for life, rather than elected as in most states, which gives them the advantage of making decisions without fear of losing favor with campaign contributors or being ousted for unpopular rulings.

Questions for the judges

After discussing juror service and how the court system works, Chief Justice Rouse handed out brochures that included a student’s guide to jury duty.

Ms. Williamson invited the students to observe a session of District Court anytime, particularly small claims court, which is held on Wednesday afternoons. “We deal with some Judge Judy type cases I think you might find very interesting,” she said.

Judge Rouse allowed time near the forum’s end for questions from students.

“What is the hardest aspect of being a judge?” Josie Iadicicco asked.

The chief justice deferred to Judge Chin.

“The hardest part is sentencing,” he said. “When you have to deprive someone of their liberty, that’s one of the most important things we do, and we take it very seriously. It’s always a difficult task.”

Ms. Rouse agreed. “Judges have responsibilities that only they can discharge, and sentencing is one of them,” she said.

Molly Houghton asked whether a judge can overrule a jury verdict.

“Yes, but we exercise that very sparingly,” Chief Justice Rouse said. “In 30 years, I may have done that two to three times.”

Justine Cassel asked if she ever overruled her own opinion.

“We rarely exercise that authority,” Ms. Rouse said. “We have appellate courts that just look at all of the records of a case to see if legal errors have been made.”

Edgartown attorney Martin Tomassian wrapped up the forum by inviting the students to participate in the Massachusetts Bar Association’s High School Mock Trial Program next spring.

“I hope I can encourage you to go on and participate in our democracy,” Judge Rouse said in closing. “And for all of you who want to become lawyers, I hope your dream comes true.”