Judge Kirkman: Fair and flexible

After four years presiding in Edgartown, the verdict is in on retirement.

Judge J. Thomas Kirkman will end his tenure as first justice of the Edgartown District Court on Thursday. –Gabrielle Mannino

It’s 9:49 am, and the chatter between attorneys and clients in the crowded Edgartown courtroom is interrupted by the strong, confident voice of a court officer: “All rise, the Honorable J. Thomas Kirkman presiding.”

These words have been repeated consistently for the past four years, but as of Thursday — just shy of four years since he was sworn in as the first justice of Edgartown District Court — Kirkman will be hanging up his robe.

“I’ve hit the age — 70 is the mandatory age,” Kirkman told The Times in his lobby (court lingo for office).

He was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to the bench in 2009 after having served as an assistant district attorney for the Cape and Islands. As fledgling judges often do, Kirkman made the rounds in New Bedford, Plymouth, Orleans — going wherever his services were needed.

In May 2015, he found a permanent home just a 45-minute ferry ride from his hometown of Falmouth.

“I had practiced over here a little bit, and really like the community, and thought this would be a nice fit,” Kirkman said, who still subbed in at other off-Island courts because of Edgartown’s limited court schedule. “It’s worked out really well.”

Kirkman can often be seen on the ferries on his way back and forth to the courthouse: “I’m learning what it’s like to live on the Island, in that you really depend on those boat schedules. So there’ll be some mornings I get up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get out the door. I’ve got to make the boat. I’ve got to park. I’ve got to do all that stuff. Or, are the boats running?’”

Kirkman went to law school at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and says he’d be the envy of his classmates who commute to either New York City or Philadelphia. “I’ll be on the boat looking down toward Nobska Light and just think, ‘My law school classmates would die to have this job.’ It’s just such a great commute … I have no complaints.”

On this particular Friday, Kirkman faces the typical district court caseload — driving infractions, probation violations, assault allegations, and larceny. The first name called is a man stopped for speeding who was also driving without a license. “I’ll dismiss this on payment of $250 and eight hours of community service,” the judge tells him.

There are several no-shows on the docket, which typically results in warrants being issued for their arrest. In one case, Kirkman reviews the file and tells the prosecutor he’s not going to issue a warrant. The man has been in treatment, and may still be, the judge says in a hopeful voice.

He doesn’t have the booming voice of a Judge Gary Nickerson or the disarming charm of Judge Robert Rufo, but there is a sense of calmness that pervades the 19th century courtroom as Kirkman speaks. He has the look of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. He’s tall, and his once dark hair now has more streaks of gray. (Certainly more than it did at his swearing-in ceremony.)

Kirkman laughs at being described as calm. “If you talk to staff, they’d say, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

The judge cut his teeth as a lawyer in legal services in the busiest courthouse in the country on Chicago’s South Side, where patience often wore thin. “Some people had tempers, you know, the system wasn’t always pleasant,” he said. “Then I moved here to the Cape, came into legal services here, three years after being out there, and even then the judges were different. Some would bark at you and stuff like that. I thought, You know what, if I’m ever going to do this, if it ever works out for me, I want everyone to be treated with respect. That, to me, is critical. It’s easier for me, I think, because I’m older. Sometimes I think of my younger colleagues who’ve been appointed, and I think, ‘Oh my God, by the time they’re in their 60s, they’re going to be screaming at people.’ Because it can be very frustrating.”

We chatted about that frustration. A staple of district court is seeing the same people come before the court, sometimes doing the same thing that brought them in the first time: “The way I look at the people in the district court, a lot of them are really stuck, and I have no idea what the backstory is. Heaven knows what their lives have been like … Sure, I get a little bit frustrated.”

If he gets too frustrated, he can use the tools at his disposal — like sentencing defendants to time at the Dukes County jail to figure things out.

“The goal here is not to see folks again. I’ve said that to people. That’s the whole idea, but they control that. I can only do so much. I do try to have a progressive disciplinary scheme.” He described it like stairs, going up depending on the infraction: “I really want everyone to get a fair trial.”

Kirkman and his wife, Gayle, have two grown children, and now grandchildren. He thinks about them and how fortunate he’s been to raise what he calls “terrific” kids. “Because now people I’m seeing are around the age of my kids, it’s not frustrating, it’s more discouraging, I’m just sad, because my kids are terrific and I think I am so lucky,” he said. “I see parents who are struggling with children who have drug addiction or have mental health issues; we need to focus more on that too.”

Kirkman grew up in Baltimore, Md., and is a veteran of the Air Force. He served four years before attending college, taking full advantage of the G.I. Bill. Becoming a judge isn’t something he thought about until a position opened up on a housing court. He applied, and didn’t get the job. “It was just as well,” he said. “I think I’m a better judge coming on later in my life — more of a capstone of my career. I had a lot of different experiences, practiced in a lot of courts, and that prepared me better.”

After Kirkman spent years in private practice doing civil litigation, the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office received a grant to start a domestic violence unit. He had experience early on in his career working on a class action lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department for violating the civil rights of battered women by not arresting their abusers.

“Doing that in Chicago got me really familiar with all the dynamics of domestic violence,” he said. “When the DA got the grant, I thought that would be really good to do. What I wanted to do is to try to do more community-based work, get law enforcement talking to advocates in the community — like a Connect to End Violence or some of these other places — and get them talking to the police. It worked. I think it worked pretty well to get a community-based response, because courts, prosecutors, cops are not going to solve these problems. We all have a role to play, and we have to stay focused, but we’re not going to solve it, but all of us together can make a difference.”

Kirkman plans to continue advocating for justice for those involved in domestic violence after he retires. He is on the board of Safe Havens Boston, an interfaith partnership against domestic violence and elder abuse.

“I think there’s some real opportunity there to just kind of raise consciousness,” he said. “I think things are going fairly well, but there’s always a lot of work to be done. Crime will never end.”

Kirkman credits Judge Robert Welsh III, who was the first justice in Orleans District Court, and Richard Kelleher, who was the first justice in Falmouth District Court, with influencing his career.

Welsh encouraged Kirkman to apply to be a judge when he retired. “He just had a great courtroom demeanor,” Kirkman said of Welsh. “Talk about someone who was calm all the time. I never saw the man get upset.”

Kelleher was “smart and didn’t waste people’s time,” Kirkman said. “He was very fair.”

Kirkman also credits Rufo and Nickerson as superior court judges whom he admires.

“For the district court, we’re almost like the Tedeschi of the courts — the doors open, people come in, and you’ve got to make quick decisions and be somewhat welcoming,” he said. “And that’s where the staff comes in, I can’t say enough about these folks in [Edgartown District Court]. That’s kind of what’s unique to Island living, these folks are rooted here. I’m not an Islander, and I get that, but they know a lot of backstory … I think they really help people, and are open and accommodating in a number of ways.”

Moving to the Vineyard has never been an option for Kirkman, who has deep roots of his own in Falmouth — at one time serving on the school committee there. “People say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to live on the Island?’ and I say no. There are places I can’t go now, and I don’t even live here. I just won’t go there. I don’t think anything would happen to me, but it wouldn’t be comfortable,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like, say, for the clerk magistrate. She does make decisions, and same with superior court clerk. Those are judicial decisions they make, and we all know the percentages are half the people who come in here are going to be unhappy when they leave … no matter what side they’re on.”

Kirkman offers this advice for the next presiding judge: “I think what we have to do as judges is meet the people where they are and not insist that they meet us where we are. People say the Island is unique; well, of course it is, but every place is unique. Everybody has a certain inherent worth and dignity that we should understand and respect. Everybody comes in with a backstory that we have no idea about. So I think you have to be somewhat flexible if things look a little out of kilter with the way things might be in Falmouth, New Bedford, Plymouth, or Wareham.”

Kirkman likes to visit the Island even when he’s not on the bench. He says that will continue. He likes to ride his bike on Vineyard trails, and is an avid sailor. “I have some friends over here. I really like the Island,” he said. “There’s a lot of good eating, and the people are great here.”


  1. Any notion that the Honorable First Justice of Edgartown District Court has contributed to turning Dukes County into a magical kingdom in his five years here, can be disproved by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts own figures.
    In approximately the 3 years leading up to him arriving to the bench here, there were zero opioid deaths reported in each of those years.
    In his first year according to MA reports, they spiked to 5, then increased and fluctuated from there. Latest stats for 2018 not yet published.
    So, it would seem the “fair and flexible” First Justice gets to flee the island, citing mandatory retirement, while having left the island drastically worse than he found it. His time here has been a demonstrable failure and he couldn’t leave soon enough.
    He had his chance to leave a lasting legacy of success, with each dealer and addict that came before him but he did not.
    I hope history will judge Kirkmans time here for what the record reflects, an abject failure. https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2017/11/13/sec2-od%20deaths%20by%20county%20Nov-17.pdf

    • Likely the spike in overdoses has much more to do with the recent influx of fentanyl in pure form or as a mixing agent with heroin than with any judge’s decisions. I guess you could lock up every drug user or small time dealer that crosses your bench, but history has shown how well that works.

    • James — there were no automobile deaths reported on Martha’s Vineyard form 1900 to 1910 .
      Got some sort of point here ?
      Let’s just blame trump for the rise in opioid deaths. He, after all, is doing nothing to stem the flow of fentanyl from CHINA — 95 % is estimated to originate in China and most of it gets into the U.S via common carriers such as the post office..
      And you make it sound like the judge has some sort of choice about retiring.

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