There is a plain, cinderblock room at Bridgewater State Hospital that, with the help of some flags and chairs, is regularly transformed into a makeshift courtroom. In this space, hundreds of social workers and doctors testified in front of Judge Maurice H. Richardson over the course of more than 20 years. So many, in fact, that upon Richardson's retirement in 1998, the room was designated the Judge Maurice H. Richardson Courtroom by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, an honor of which Richardson is very proud.
The naming of the room after Richardson is one of many tributes that he has received during the last several decades for his achievements as a Massachusetts district court judge. And as Richardson enters into his ninth year of "retirement," he continues to achieve.
A winding road
Richardson's journey has been extensive and unpredictable. In 1951, Richardson graduated from Harvard University with an A.B. in American Government. "That's what you major in when you have no idea what you want to do," he laughed. However, he had barely received his diploma before he was placed on active duty as a Marine lieutenant and was shipped to Korea for two years.
Upon his return to the United States, Richardson found himself unemployed, but soon discovered that law schools were taking war veterans as applicants on very short notice. As a Marine, he had been stationed in Virginia, so he applied and began attending the University of Virginia Law School in the fall of 1953. Richardson always had an interest in criminal justice and originally thought that he would like to work for the FBI. However, as a student at UVA, he learned more and more about other fields of law and said that he quickly "fell in love with the concept of becoming a lawyer instead of a cop." He learned that there was more to the law than just criminal justice and became especially interested in antitrust law.
During his law school summers, Richardson's jobs ranged from doing construction work in Lexington to being a summer associate at a firm in New York City. Following his summer in New York, Richardson was hired by Choate, Hall & Stewart, a well-known Boston firm, to start the day after Labor Day in 1956. As an associate, Richardson earned just $15 an hour and $20 an hour for corporate work. For his first two years, he worked on a large antitrust case, defending Mobil Oil against the government, which had sued the company for price fixing. He stayed with Choate, Hall & Stewart for about six years before he moved on to his own, smaller practice - Nauss & Richardson - and looked for general trial work.
However, his small practice only lasted a few years before Richardson dived into politics and hit the campaign trail with his cousin, the Hon. Elliot L. Richardson, who ran for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1964. Perhaps finally putting his American Government degree from Harvard to work, Maurice Richardson became the state campaign coordinator for his cousin. He knocked on doors, called citizens' houses and organized grassroots campaign efforts across the state. Elliot Richardson won the race for lieutenant governor, went on to become attorney general of Massachusetts and eventually served as U.S. attorney general under President Nixon.
His involvement in state politics led him to an appointment as the commissioner of the Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board, which he served on for eight years. It was on this board that Richardson heard workers' compensation cases and learned how much he enjoyed "being the deciding factor in a litigation environment." His role as a "deciding factor" was extended when, in 1974, Richardson was appointed as a judge by Gov. Frank Sargent to the Dedham District Court, where he stayed for more than 20 years: eight years as an associate justice and 16 years as the first justice.
Discovering his focus as a judge
Richardson loved his years at the Dedham District Court. He describes the court employees as hardworking, and the court itself as having a reputation for efficiency. It was during his early years in the Dedham District Court that he first became involved in mental health cases - a concentration that would shape much of his later career. As a junior judge in Dedham, Richardson was sent to Medfield State Hospital twice a month and to Bridgewater State Hospital once a month to preside over civil commitment and treatment hearings. From there, Richardson was hooked.
"I believe that all judges and lawyers ought to embrace a specialty and develop an expertise in a certain area," Richardson said. "It's satisfying to speak with some authority and made my experience even more rewarding." He worked with the Hon. Franklin Flaschner, former chief justice of the Massachusetts District Court, for whom the Flaschner Judicial Institute was founded and named. In an effort to streamline judicial procedures throughout the state, Flaschner appointed various committees to address different areas of the law.
Richardson served as a member of the District Court Committee on Mental Health and Retardation, which he described as "spokespeople for the mental health community," from 1975 to 1987, and as the chair of the committee from 1987 until his retirement in 1998. To improve the court system's handling of cases involving persons with mental illness, the committee trained judges, organized regional training for probation officers and lobbied for changes in various state statutes to protect the rights of the mentally ill.
Richardson also expanded the committee from a small group of eight to 10 judges to a committee of more than 40 members from various disciplines. Now the committee is made up of judges, doctors and social workers, and includes a main committee with about 20 members, and a series of smaller subcommittees.
Technically, Richardson retired in May of 1998. But more than eight years later, he shows little sign of retirement. Richardson has retained his interest in the treatment and rights of the mentally ill and is still deeply invested in the cause. He quickly became an assistant professor in the Law and Psychiatry Program at UMass Medical School in Worcester, the program director of the Law & Psychiatry Program for Clinicians at Bridgewater State Hospital and the director of the Massachusetts Mental Health Diversion & Integration Program (MMHDIP). In his spare time, he also manages to teach a course at New England School of Law, where he is an adjunct professor.
Changes since 1956
The legal world that Richardson entered 50 years ago is a different world, he explained, both in terms of the treatment of the mentally ill, as well as the state of the legal community.
Richardson discussed the massive trend of deinstitutionalization that has reduced the number of hospitalized, mentally ill patients from 25,000 in the 1950s to fewer than 1,000 patients today.
"Then, there were 11 institutions in the state. Now, there are four," Richardson said. "There is no safety net and there aren't enough outpatient services for released patients." He talked about the ways that many mentally ill citizens end up in the criminal justice system and also referred to a recent article by research psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey that reports, "The Los Angeles County Jail, with 3,400 mentally ill prisoners, is de facto the largest psychiatric inpatient facility in the United States."
With the MMHDIP, Richardson is hoping to reduce statistics like this, at least in Massachusetts, by diverting mentally ill citizens away from the criminal justice system and into alternative treatment programs.
"We are training Boston police to effectively deal with the mentally ill, create a triage unit to cope with immediate cases and develop more legal options for them," Richardson explained.
For all of his work with the legal care of the mentally ill, Richardson has received awards from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Massachusetts, the District Court Award for Judicial Excellence, and the Commissioner's Award from the Department of Mental Health, among many others.
Aside from the increase in his $15-per-hour wages in 1956 and the days of the courts staying open on Saturdays, Richardson says that other parts of the legal experience have changed. He is concerned with the cold and competitive nature of attorney relationships in today's world.
"Years ago, two lawyers could have it out in the courtroom but then have a drink together on their way home from work," Richardson remembered.
He also suggested that years ago, if one attorney left his file behind after a day in court, the opposing attorney would pick it up and return it to him the next day, and both attorneys would trust one another. Today, he sees collegiality on the decline, but believes that the institution of civility codes, along with the support of professional organizations like the MBA (which Richardson commented "is responsible for helping to maintain integrity in the legal profession") will help to "turn it around."
Leaving his mark
When approached about being profiled, Richardson said he was honored, but that "there is not all that much to tell." But his life's accomplishments make the naming of the cement room at Bridgewater State Hospital seem especially suitable. The Judge Maurice H. Richardson Courtroom does not have the perfectly smooth wood banisters or intricately carved seals of a typical courtroom, but is a humble, simple space that now embodies the justice of the humble man who presided over it for so long.