State court chief speaks about women, justice in law

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Maureen McKenna Goldberg, the acting Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, turned the Swearer Center’s “Providence 101” initiative into “Law and Order 101” yesterday.

Discussing topics that included the history of women on the state’s top court and advice for prospective law students, Goldberg gave the audience a glimpse of her professional life. Tuesday’s lecture, held in Alumnae Hall, was part of a series of sessions intended to give students the opportunity to learn more about Providence and its history.

Goldberg, a graduate of Providence College, began the event by talking about the “arduous path” of women to success in the legal world. A few decades ago, men argued that “the delicacy of the female sex” made them unfit to pursue a career in law, she said.

“Women trial lawyers, of which I was one, were a rare sight to see,” said Goldberg, who is the third woman to be appointed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. But she noted a rise in the number of female judges over the last three decades – there are now 28 female judges in Rhode Island’s several courts, compared with just three in 1980.

“Now that looks like we’ve made great improvement,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg also gave advice to the handful of prospective law students in the audience of about 15 people. She spoke about the financial crisis, President Barack Obama and the “changed world” into which graduates are stepping.

“Get the job done,” she said. “Whatever responsibilities may come your way, fulfill them and do so with a smile on your face.”

During the question-and-answer period that followed the lecture, audience members asked Goldberg to speak more about her own professional experience as a judge. She talked about the need to remain neutral when making a decision because, according to Goldberg, everyone has the right to have a “fair and impartial trial.”

“You have to be able to look at a trial record with dispassion,” she said. “No matter who asks the question, the answer is always the same.”

Goldberg said that as a state Supreme Court justice who reviews case decisions, she misses being directly involved in the legal process like she was as a judge in state Superior Court, where she said she would often sentence drug addicts to rehabilitation instead of jail.

She said she once met one such man whom she had sent to rehabilitation, and he showed her how he had turned his life around and bought a new car. “‘This is my car, and I have a car because I have a job,'” Goldberg recounted the man saying. “‘And, I have job because you didn’t send me to jail.'”

She finished the session by telling students to start figuring out what they like to do before settling on a career. “It is not cheap to go to college – you might as well end up doing something you like,” Goldberg said. “I like what I do, so that turned out well.”

According to a Jan. 31 Providence Journal article, Goldberg is among at least seven candidates interested in the vacant job of chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which she is filling in a temporary capacity.

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