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Centennial Panel Features Four Female Chief Justices

Women’s Struggles Recounted and Impact Assessed

Chief Justice Christine M. Durham, Utah Supreme Court
Chief Justice Christine M. Durham, Utah Supreme Court

(Boston, Revised 11/13/09) New England Law | Boston:Women now comprise roughly half of law students nationwide, but Chief Justice Christine M. Durham of the Utah Supreme Court was a member of a distinct minority when she received her J.D. in 1971. “Women represented less than 2 percent of the law profession,” she said. She recalled that when she graduated from Duke University School of Law, “There was not a single law firm in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina that would hire a woman lawyer.”

Chief Justice Durham was among the trailblazers who gathered for a panel discussion on March 20, 2009. An overflow crowd in New England Law | Boston’s Cherry Room, including a C-SPAN television crew, learned about the sizable hurdles cleared by Chief Justice Durham, Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor of the Arizona Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Breaking Through the “Ceilings”

Chief Justice Margaret h. Marshall, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Chief Justice Margaret h. Marshall, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

The panelists traveled different paths to their states’ top judicial posts, but all were part of the early wave of female law school graduates whose determination was ultimately rewarded with substantial opportunities. Chief Justice Marshall summarized, “What you really have here with the four chiefs is what I call ‘the glass ceiling generation.’”

Zoe Paolantonio (’09) asked how encounters with the glass ceiling impacted their consideration of cases. Chief Justice Sears provided an analogy, saying that all judges wear “sunglasses” colored by their life experiences. Yet what others might assume to be the primary influences on her life – her status as a woman and an African American – are not reliable predictors of her decisions, she stated, since she is an independent thinker.

Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Supreme Court of Georgia
Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Supreme Court of Georgia

Chief Justice Sears told attendees, “I would encourage the young women here today to get out there, and don’t be afraid to fail.” 

Earlier in the program, Chief Justice Marshall had quipped that the two Portia Law School graduates in attendance, Eleanora Fantony Burke (’35) and Margaret Kelley Doyle ('32), were short in height because they had come up against a “concrete ceiling.” Chief Justice Marshall admonished today’s female law students, “If you go through a single day of law school without raising your hand, you’re not doing justice to the women who bashed their heads against the ‘concrete ceiling!’”

Women’s Impact on the Profession

Chief Justice Sears described the discomfort and isolation that she experienced in a large Atlanta firm early in her career. Mentors bonded with junior attorneys on golfing and hunting trips, but as she exclaimed, “I like to shop!” When the audience’s laughter subsided, she began again on a serious note, describing her superiors’ inflexibility when her then six-month-old child was hospitalized. 

Ruth V. McGregor, Arizona Supreme Court
Ruth V. McGregor, Arizona Supreme Court

The overlapping responsibilities of attorney, wife, and mother can be difficult to manage, at least in the short run, acknowledged Chief Justice McGregor. “We want to balance and when we find we can’t do it every day, we have to take a longer view,” she said.

Chief Justice McGregor cited the work of social scientists who maintain that women tend to decide by consensus and are less adversarial. She and Chief Justice Durham drew a connection between the growth in recent decades of alternative dispute resolution strategies, family law, and community courts and the increased numbers of female attorneys.

The Benefits of a Judicial Career

(L-R), Hulett H. Askew, Consultant, American Bar Association; Dean John F. O'Brien ('77); Chief Justice Durham; Chief Justice Marshall; Chief Justice McGregor; Chief Justice Sears; Professor Dussias
(L-R), Hulett H. Askew, Consultant, American Bar Association; Dean John F. O'Brien ('77); Chief Justice Durham; Chief Justice Marshall; Chief Justice McGregor; Chief Justice Sears; Professor Dussias

Chief Justice McGregor fondly recalled her years as a trial lawyer. “I think being a lawyer is just terrific and I loved every minute of it.” Yet over time, as her skills improved and her billing rate climbed, she had less time for the research and writing that she had once enjoyed. The judicial branch allowed her to again pursue these interests.

A judgeship can also be a practical choice for those with childrearing responsibilities.  Chief Justice Marshall explained, “The one thing that you have as a judge is predictability.”  She tempered that observation with sage advice about choosing a career path, reminding attendees of the importance of passion.

Much Work Remains

Notwithstanding women’s great progress, there is still much to be done. Chief Justice Durham noted a recent American Bar Association study that concluded that the number of women in the upper echelons of top firms remains disproportionately low.



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