Mass. Chief Justice Recalls Childhood

South African upbringing sparked Marshall's interest in legal justice

Giselle Cheung

Margaret H. Marshall, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, answers questions posed by Cambridge resident Janet A. Pryor yesterday at the Brattle Theater.

Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall reflected on how her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa made her more conscious of the influence of the law during a talk last night at Brattle Theatre.

Marshall—the justice who wrote the decision that made same-sex marriage legal in Massachusetts in 2003—said that growing up under apartheid sparked her interest in the law.

“The system I grew up in was a system of injustice,” Marshall said.

Marshall said that because she is white, she could vote, travel freely, and attend an elite school. But she was profoundly aware that many other citizens of South Africa were not afforded these privileges.

When Marshall spent a year of high school in Detroit as a foreign exchange student, she was stunned by the way Americans freely criticized the government, she said.


“When I think about the year I spent in the U.S., I can almost taste the freedom I felt then,” she said.

Marshall said she has watched the way South African justices handle the economic rights afforded by the South African constitution, which include access to water, education, and health care.

“How do judges determine whether or not it is even a judicial decision to close a clinic?” she said. “Perhaps that is a legislative issue.”

Marshall was one of only several girls in her South African high school to pursue a college degree.

She attended college in South Africa before getting a master’s degree in education at Harvard and attending Yale Law School.

Marshall was prohibited from visiting South Africa for decades because she opposed apartheid, she said.

However, she has visited the country frequently since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

Last night’s event was part of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education’s Wicked Smart series, which is in its second year.

The center wanted to collaborate with the Commonwealth Journal, a radio program on WUMB 91.9, to help draw on Boston’s intellectual wealth, said Susan Hartnett, the center’s executive director.

“We choose people who we think are ‘wicked smart’: the best and the brightest in the area,” said Janis A. Pryor, the host of Commonwealth Journal, who interviewed Marshall last night. “We wanted to find a way to reinvigorate Harvard Square.”

Wicked Smart is broadcasted over 33 Mass. radio stations to 50,000 to 60,000 listeners, Pryor said.

—Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at