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The Second Sex at Middlesex Courthouse

Women and the Law

By Aline Brosh

The Middlesex District Courthouse is tall, grey, grim. Inside, everything looks as if it's covered with a layer of grit.

People cluster in the darkened hallways--a public defender tries to get a pair of defendants to admit, an assistant D.A. confers with a prosecution witness. Speaking quickly, in legal jargon, they're making deals. They look and sound like fast-talking hustlers in a David Mamet play. But there's a difference. Many of the key players are women.

Once inside the courtroom there's an evident easy camaraderie between the men and women. It's clear that the priority is simply to get things done. Still, the courtroom audience seems taken aback when the judge walks into the room.

She's tall, with striking good looks and undeniable stage presence and, in her judicial robes, appears as if she just walked off the set of L.A. Law. The procedures and laws she deals with may not be much different than what confronted her male predecessors, but the fact remains: her presence is remarkable.

The judge's name is Wendie Gershengorn and she's one of two women out of the six judges for Middlesex County.

Middlesex Courthouse is in many ways a laboratory for observing the consequences of the dramatic enhancement over the last decade of the role of women in the Bay State's court system. In addition to the two female judges in Middlesex, the District Attorney's Office is made up mostly of women lawyers (though the district attorney is a man.) About half the lawyers in the Public Defender's Office for Middlesex are women.

And while there are only two women on the bench in the district, they comprise 20 percent of all female district judges in the state. Only 10 of 146 district judges are women in Massachusettes.

Gershengorn cites a real change in the court system since her first days as a public defender. At that time, she says, there was a strong prevailing macho ethic. "We fight tough, we drink tough, we are tough," is how she describes the credo of the male lawyers and judges who once dominated courthouses across the state.

Those who spend their days working in the Middlesex Courthouse say the female presence has challenged legal traditions in two ways: first, in the interpersonal relationships among litigants, lawyers and judges; and second, women may be having an effect on the law itself, both in the way cases are decided and how laws are implemented.

These changes in the courtroom ethic have come about gradually. Geoff Packard, a public defender, says, "It's like noticing a glacier moving." He feels he is comfortable with women because, "we grew up in the profession together, that was normality."

Most of the younger attorneys at the Middlesex courthouse deny that gender plays a large role in their everyday routines. Jo Ann Stringer, another public defender, says: "I feel very grateful to the women's movement, but I'm still figuring out how to be a good attorney, not a good woman attorney."

Others contend that lawyers simply bond together because all--men and women alike--deal with the same difficult work. Public sector law is characterized by low pay, long hours and little prestige, and the circumstances of the work more than the gender of the lawyers creates what Packard calls a "fortress mentality."

"The very macho kind of ethic was simply modified in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way," he says. "We're representing people who everyone else calls `less than worthless.' We few, we happy few, we hang together."

Milly Whatley, a supervisor in the public defenders's office, agrees. The first time she cried because she was disappointed with the outcome of a case, Whatley recalls, two male lawyers came up to her to say, "Let me tell you about the time I cried."

But not everyone at the courthouse feels that the transition in Middlesex has been easy. Jacqueline Alexander, who has only recently joined the staff at the District Attorney's Office, was "very surprised" by the preponderance of women there. She wishes there were a better balance. "Women have certain tendencies," said Alexander, citing an atmosphere of "moodiness and cattiness" among the group of women she works with.

And according to Packard, "If you're angry at something someone did, the fact that they're a woman is going to come up." Since the vast majority of litigants who come through the district court are male, women attorneys say that every day there is the possibility that their gender will create conflict.

But most of the female attorneys claim that none of their clients has ever made an issue out of their sex. "In nine years," says Whatley, "only one defendant has raised the issue."

But aside from the effects on the interpersonal dynamics within Middlesex Courthouse, the increasing presence of women lawyers and judges there may also have an impact on the law itself. As Packard puts it, "The law--that great ungendered being--has changed enormously. Whether women affect this is a question."

"I bring to the bench a set of life experiences that may be different," says Gershengorn. "I wouldn't deny them. I don't think I'm appointed to deny them. I would hope that women who go into litigation would enrich their practice with that perspective."

Ruth Abrams, the only woman currently serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, concurs with Gershengorn. "Even if the law is clear as a bell, sometimes a woman's perception is different," she says.

Men and women at Middlesex say that Abrams' theory applies particularly to cases such as rape. Whatley says that occasionally "men are afraid to use their skills" in a rape case for fear that they will be too agressive, and therefore appear sexist.

But Packard counters that a male defendant accused of rape "may feel uncomfortable talking to a woman about exactly what happened."

And in the cases where a woman has committed a violent crime, Whatley claims that the litigant is "much more likely to go to jail with a female judge. A male judge may think, `Look at the poor little thing.'" In cases of domestic abuse, Gershengorn says that women display "more sensitivity to women seeking restraining orders."

`Sensitivity'

The issue of "sensitivity" predominates in discussions about why so many new women lawyers choose the low-pay and long hours of public service law. "It's definitely a sacrifice," says Alexander.

Some, like Whatley, think that the reason women go into criminal law may be twofold. First, "women are willing to settle for lower salaries." But Whatley also says that "women are more sensitive" and "are more likely to express personal feeling."

But attributing the growing number of women in the courts to traditional ideas about female charity and altruism doesn't sit well with some male attorneys.

"I think that some women, be they attorneys or judges, would like to think that the fact that they are women helps them to understand or appreciate cases more than men--and therefore a more just decision is reached. I don't think so," Packard says. "The individuals make a difference whether they are male or female."

Packard also cites a "mythology that victims in general and women in particular are treated badly...This is a premise and I think it's untrue...If you're a woman and a lawyer and the judge calls you `dearie' and then rules in your favor then there's bias, but what's the effect?"

In the pressure of the daily routine at Middlesex, the issue of gender is often lost in the crises of the moment. But the larger number of women at Middlesex and other courthouses across the state inevitably leads lawyers, litigants and judges to confront their own attitudes about gender.

"I see young women more and more [in the court system] and I like it. [The men] say they like it too, but I wonder," says Abrams. "Women now expect to be treated as equals."

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