Appeals Court Chief Justice Phillip Rapoza draws from global experience and unique perspectives

Issue January 2007 By Kate O’Toole

The bookshelves in the office of new Massachusetts Appeals Court Chief Justice Phillip Rapoza are lined with more than just pages of case law. Numerous wooden statues carved by various Timorese artists fill the top of his bookcase, and framed antique maps of Timor, Portugal and the Azores are arranged on two walls. This art comes from what Rapoza calls his "working vacations": his volunteer judicial work in countries around the globe. He has traveled to Portugal, Mozambique, Haiti and Cambodia, and recently spent 18 months in East Timor serving on a United Nations war crimes tribunal.

"Some people asked me if my trip to East Timor was a mid-life crisis," Rapoza laughed. "But when is it ever convenient to pick up and leave everything behind?"

Rapoza’s experience in legal work is broad and diverse. As an attorney, Rapoza practiced as an assistant district attorney in the Suffolk and Bristol County District Attorney’s Offices and then in Fall River and New Bedford law firms doing primarily criminal defense work. Appointed as a judge to the Fall River District Court in 1992, Rapoza served there for four years before his appointment to the Superior Court. He stayed in the Superior Court until his appointment to the Appeals Court in 1998.

Rapoza, one of only two Portuguese-American judges in Massachusetts, speaks extensively and proudly about his Portuguese heritage. The first members of his family to immigrate to the United States arrived in New Bedford harbor from the Azores at the end of the 19th century and made their living as factory workers and shopkeepers while Rapoza’s father was a musician and his mother was an artist.

In his speech at his swearing-in ceremony in October, Rapoza noted the significance of the location of his former law practice. "Almost a century [after my family arrived in New Bedford], I was practicing law a mere five blocks from the dock where they disembarked." He also called the Portuguese community "an inspiration" to him and thanked those who "came before me" and "stood beside me." He stated proudly, "I will never forget them. Ever."

His experience growing up in a closely knit family within an extensive Portuguese community provided him "a vivid example of the importance of hard work and education." (According to the 2000 census, New Bedford is almost 40 percent Portuguese, as is the rest of Bristol County.)

Working on an international stage

With his heritage playing such an important role in his life, Rapoza began searching for ways to combine his work as a judge with his involvement in the Portuguese community. With assistance from the Luso-American Development Foundation in Portugal, he established the Commission for Justice Across the Atlantic, a legal exchange program between the United States and Portugal. Rapoza is both the founding member and the current chairman of the commission, which promotes closer ties between the legal systems of the two countries. It organizes conferences and maintains dialogue between the countries’ judicial systems about issues affecting both countries, including criminal justice, the right to privacy, domestic violence and child abuse. As a result of this work, the president of Portugal bestowed on Rapoza the rank of Commander in the Order of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal’s highest civilian honor.

Through his developing relationship with the Portuguese legal community, Rapoza became aware of the United Nations’ recruitment of judges for the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. This war crimes tribunal was established to prosecute crimes against humanity committed in East Timor during the country’s struggle for independence in 1999.

In order to serve, Rapoza took a one-year unpaid leave of absence from his judicial duties, which required the permission of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Appeals Court Chief Justice Christopher J. Armstrong. Rapoza not only earned a spot on the U.N. tribunal as the only U.S. judge, but also was promoted to chief administrative judge of the panel in March 2004, after just three months of service.

East Timor was administered by the U.N. during the nation’s transition to independence between 1999 and 2002. Prior to independence, the country lacked any judicial infrastructure. "All public buildings had been burned, and all the judges and attorneys in East Timor, who were Indonesian nationals, left the country," Rapoza explained. The country required a police force and prisons, and the court system needed more than just judges: it had to be reconstructed from the ground up. Even after Rapoza arrived in December 2003, basic services such as electricity were not consistently available at the courthouse where he served.

From its inception to its closure in 2005, the Special Panels held 55 trials of East Timorese militia members for crimes against humanity. Working with judges from around the world, Rapoza had the opportunity to experience different legal cultures and share American legal perspectives with his international colleagues. One significant difference in American legal tradition is in the career path taken to become a judge. In the United States, most judges practice as attorneys in some capacity before being appointed to the bench, but in other countries, the path toward a judgeship is chosen in law school, from which the candidate proceeds directly to judicial service.

On the tribunal, Rapoza was the only judge from a common law country and the only one who had also worked as an attorney. When discussing a trial with his peers, other judges found that he had different insights about the case because of his previous trial experience. Rapoza values the knowledge he gained as a practicing attorney, as he described his judicial career: "I consider myself a lawyer who functions as a judge." Nonetheless, the notion of identifying as both a judge and an attorney is unfamiliar to some judges in other countries. "I developed a deeper appreciation for other legal systems from my international judicial colleagues. On the other hand, my experience as an attorney also gave me a unique perspective that I could share with them," he said.

"It is always good to return to first principles and to review the basics of our own system. Working with other international judges, I often had to revisit aspects of the law that we take for granted," he continued. "To share our legal ideas with a person from another legal tradition is a challenge and you have to be prepared to go back to fundamentals and to return to root concepts."

Rapoza discussed the impact of the trials on the Timorese people on several levels. He believes that the trials helped to ensure that those who murdered and tortured were held accountable for their actions.

"It is important for the international community to ensure that there is an end to impunity for such crimes and to make clear that these activities cannot stand," he said. He also talked about the thoroughness of the trials, each of which took months and involved extensive findings. The rules also required the judges to write full decisions for each trial. "The trials created an extensive historical record and provided a comprehensive description of what happened in East Timor," he explained.

Finally, Rapoza talked about the emotional impact of the trials on the local community. After a time of brutality and fear, the people of East Timor were looking for justice and searching for closure. "In 1999, everyone lost somebody," he remarked. "Nobody escaped the violence." Rapoza hopes that he and his colleagues helped to bring a sense of finality to the chaos of the past years. It was significant, he noted, that the Special Panels was the first such tribunal to actually sit in the country in which the crimes on trial were committed.

Rapoza intended to depart after his one year of service in East Timor, but in 2004, the U.N. extended the court for six months and requested that he remain. The U.N. contacted Chief Justice Armstrong to request an extension of Rapoza’s stay and special legislation was drafted to extend his leave of absence until July 2005. He returned to his role on the Appeals Court at that time with "a strong sense of having made a contribution to the process of justice" in East Timor.

Returning to the commonwealth

Rapoza admitted that he was concerned about the reception he would get from his judicial colleagues in Massachusetts after being away from the appellate bench for 18 months. However, Rapoza smiled as he recalled the warm welcome that his colleagues gave him upon his return and the pride that they showed in the work he had done. In fact, he cited the collegiality of his peers on the Appeals Court as one of the most rewarding aspects of his career. He added: "The judges of the Appeals Court represent a broad cross-section of the legal profession and they bring a variety of experiences and an incredible mix of talent to the bench. The Massachusetts bench is highly qualified at both the appellate and trial levels, and I have always been impressed by the quality of the judges with whom I’ve worked."

He spoke about the overall satisfaction he receives from his judicial career: "People come to court as a last resort, and it is tremendously rewarding to know how you can make a difference in people’s lives. Yes, there is a sense of satisfaction in being part of the majesty of the law, but the law is ultimately about people."

Even though Rapoza has had more international judicial experience than the average U.S. judge, his travels around the globe have all been "working vacations." Indeed, Rapoza has taken little real vacation time at all, devoting most of his outside time to his international judicial work. Nonetheless, his work at the Appeals Court remains his top priority, and he routinely works 12-hour days at the John Adams Courthouse.

He is eagerly taking on the new responsibilities of the chief justice position and praised the work of his predecessor, Armstrong, who nearly doubled the size of the Appeals Court from 14 to 25 judges. Now the court has a staff of 130 and an $11 million budget. Rapoza acknowledges that judicial administration of this large court is his biggest challenge, but says that he ultimately wants to "take the court to a new level of excellence and to ensure that it continues to serve the public to the fullest."

Rapoza recognized the individuals involved in the judicial process in his swearing-in speech: "The rendering of justice begins not just when one enters the courtroom, but starts when a person enters the courthouse itself. From court officer to court clerk, from legal secretary to staff attorney, each person plays a vital role in seeing that the public is well served."

Recently, Rapoza was short-listed by the U.N. to serve as a judge on a new war crimes tribunal in Cambodia, a country that he has visited twice to assist in the training of judges and attorneys. Although Rapoza thoroughly enjoys his work in international law, he declined the opportunity because he "felt committed to the Appeals Court" and noted that working exclusively in international law was not something he was prepared to do, at least at this moment.

But whether he is working in the South Pacific or in Suffolk County, Rapoza said, "It is so rewarding to do what you love to do for people who are so much in need."