Ask Justice Geraldine S. Hines why she decided on a career in the law, and she may answer with a question of her own: “How could I do anything else?” Growing up in Mississippi during the 1960s battles over segregation and voting rights, Justice Hines felt a strong desire to be part of the effort to bring about change.
“Law, to me, seemed to be the way to get things done, to make things change. I wanted to be part of that,” she said. “And I haven’t been disappointed. At the same time, I also came to understand that the law has its limits, and that you need to have a lot of different people doing different things – like community organizing and policy – to make it work.”
After graduating from Tougaloo College in 1968, Justice Hines received her juris doctorate from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1971. Upon graduation, she moved to Boston and focused on developing a career in public service, first as an attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Roxbury Defenders’ Committee, and Harvard University Center for Law and Education. In 1970s Boston, being an attorney as a woman of color was, as she puts it, a “pioneering experience.”
“When I became a lawyer in 1971, there weren’t that many women,” Justice Hines explained. “It’s different now, but when I came to Boston as a new lawyer, I rarely saw women in the courtroom. You just had to figure it out by yourself and the few other women that you would meet along the way.”
Justice Hines went on to collaborate with two of the woman she met along the way – Margaret Burnham and Judith Dilday – on the founding of Burnham, Hines & Dilday, the first law firm in New England run by women of color. In private practice, Justice continued her focus on civil rights cases, while also taking on clients facing criminal, administrative, labor and family law matters. One case in particular stands out.
“In the 1990s, I was on the Committee for Public Counsel Services ‘murder list,’ and I was assigned to represent a juvenile who was charged with double murder,” she said. “This was a very controversial case; the two victims were children themselves (ages 11 and 15). One was the youngest victim in a spate of violence that was going on in Boston. I lived in the neighborhood just blocks from where it happened, and it was a very tense time for me because people were angry. I was convinced that this person was innocent, and his life depended on me being competent and being passionate about his cause.”
Justice Hines calls the case an “all-consuming experience” that often required an effort to conquer her fear of mistakes.
“That case included everything that being a lawyer is about: getting into someone else’s story, and meeting expectations. Not just your client’s expectations, but also your own, and the system’s expectations that you’re going to do what you need to do to give representation. My client was acquitted, and he has gone on to have wonderful life.”
Justice Hines began her judicial career in 2001, as an associate justice of the Superior Court. She served that court for 12 years, and joined the Appeals Court in 2013. In 2014, she became the first African American woman nominated to the Supreme Judicial Court. The transition from lawyer to judge, she noted, added a new lens to her perspective on the law.
“I came to the court like everybody else, with my life experience, and with my view of the purpose of the law,” she said. “It’s supposed to solve problems. It’s supposed to help us have just outcomes to bad things that happen. You bring your sense of what is just, fair, and right. But you also bring awareness that, sometimes, it’s not possible to accomplish that. And you accept that, because you’re not an advocate anymore.”
One case in particular serves as a reminder of this critical point: a murder case involving two teenagers that came before Justice Hines during her second year as a judge in the Superior Court. A mother of a 15 year-old boy came to understand that her son had killed another teen. She brought people from her church into her home to pray, and confronted him.
“She told him that his life would never be worth anything if he didn’t confess,” Justice Hines explained. “So she and other family members brought him down to the police station, and instructed him to confess to the shooting. And he did.”
Justice Hines had to decide whether or not that statement could be suppressed due to his mother’s coercion.
“I wrestled with my conscience for the longest time,” she recalled. “As a human being, I felt that this child should have a right to have a trial. He should not be burdened with his mother’s religious conviction, which was not his conviction. Finally, I came to the realization that, despite what I personally felt was right, I had to follow the law. And the law says that a child is only entitled to advice from an interested adult, and nobody could argue that his mother was not an interested adult.
“That was the most challenging case in my career as judge. I had to come to terms with the tension between the law and what I thought was just. I felt it wasn’t right for a child to be tried on the basis of a confession that was coerced by parental authority. However, that’s the law. So that was a hard one for me. I think with that case I proved – to myself – that I was an honest actor in this whole business, which you have to work hard at. It’s a myth that judges are naturally unbiased; that’s something we have to work toward, because we’re all human.”
Looking ahead to life after the bench, Justice Hines will be exploring opportunities to work on voter suppression issues, which she calls the “great civil rights issue of our time.” But before that, she will be instructing future lawyers on the intersection of race and criminal law as the spring 2018 Jerome Lyle Rappaport Distinguished Visiting Professor at Boston College Law School, where she hopes to convey the importance of having passion for your work.
“The lesson from my life as a lawyer is that you have to have passion for the work that you do, and you have to choose what you do wisely. I’ve been at this for 46 years, and it’s been so rich because I have come to it with a passion for justice and for seeing things made right. That’s a long time to be doing something if you don’t care about it.”