Margaret H. Marshall

Sunday, May 22, 2011 - 08:59

Honorary Degree Citation

Margaret Marshall, lawyer and judge, your commitment to equality under the law was forged in your native South Africa, where you led students at the University of the Witwatersrand in opposing apartheid. As you yourself have written, “There was no access to justice in South Africa. There were a few courageous barristers who agreed to represent people charged with political crimes, but, by and large, if you were a black South African, you had no justice.”

You left Johannesburg for New England, earning a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a J.D. from Yale. Between 1976 and 1992, you were an associate and partner in two major Boston law firms, pausing to become a United States citizen in 1978. Toward the end of that period, you were also president of the Boston Bar Association. You returned to your educational roots in 1992, serving for four years as vice president and general counsel at Harvard University. In 1996, you were appointed by then-Governor William Weld as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. A short three years later, you were sworn in as that court’s chief justice, the first woman to hold that position in the court’s then-307-year history.

Your accomplishments as chief justice are many. You assessed and improved court management systems. Under your leadership, Massachusetts implemented its first comprehensive program of judicial evaluation. You examined and made significant changes in the lawyer disciplinary system. You championed civic education about the Massachusetts Constitution, the nature of constitutional democracy, and the meaning of the rule of law. Above all, you sought to improve access to justice for all the people of Massachusetts, including those of modest means, those of limited or no English proficiency, and those with disabilities.

Your decisions are legion and pathbreaking. Some sense of their range comes from simply listing their categories: class action, criminal law, discrimination and employment law, family law, fiduciary duties, personal injury, procedure, and speech, press, and religion. In Dartt v. Browning Ferris Industries (1998), you clarified the prima facie standard for bringing a claim of handicap discrimination under the Massachusetts antidiscrimination statute. In Salvas v. Wal-Mart Stores (2008), you reversed a lower court decision granting summary judgment to Wal-Mart in a lawsuit brought by former employees, holding that the employees, who alleged that Wal-Mart wrongfully had withheld compensation and denied or cut short work breaks to which they were entitled, could maintain their case as a class action. And in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003), you wrote for a 4-3 majority that “the Massachusetts Constitution affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” It prohibits, you held in Goodridge, denying same-sex couples access to the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage.

Less than a year ago you retired as chief justice. You reminded us on that occasion that the court and the law serve “to protect the rights of all of the people, impartially, fairly, equally.” For your untiring and courageous life lived “greatly in the law,” Mount Holyoke is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.