Justice Margot Botsford’s journey to the SJC

Issue October 2007 By Kate O’Toole

Paintings of Oliver Wendell Holmes with his distinguished, thick moustache hang high on the walls of the courtroom named in his honor on the second floor of the John Adams Courthouse. Below, newly appointed Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Margot G. Botsford pulled on her heavy black robe—the very same robe that she has worn since her appointment to the bench in 1989—and stood beside the bench at which Holmes sat when he was a member of the Supreme Judicial Court more than 100 years ago.

Botsford recently became only the fifth woman to sit on the SJC since it was established in 1692. Despite this milestone, Botsford is nothing but modest. She told onlookers at her swearing-in ceremony several weeks ago that she is “deeply grateful” for her appointment to the SJC.

Early years

Botsford was born and raised in New York City. Her father, Gardner Botsford, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and worked as an editor for The New Yorker for more than 40 years. Her mother did not have a college degree and worked at Macy’s until Margot and her older sister, Susan, were born. Botsford and her sister—who lives in Cambridge—remain close.

Botsford did not always know that the law was for her. In fact, for many years, she thought she wanted to be a history teacher, and even went to the Harvard School of Education to pursue a Master of Arts in Teaching after graduating from Barnard. “I had a fabulous teacher and course about law and American politics when I was in high school,” Botsford recalled. “I didn’t last too long at Harvard, though,” she laughed. “After six weeks, I knew it wasn’t for me.”

Having relocated to Boston, Botsford decided to pursue a legal career instead. She applied to law schools in the area, and was drawn to Northeastern School of Law because of its co-op program.

“When I started law school, I thought I was going to be a legal assistance lawyer,” she said. “But my co-op at Greater Boston Legal Services showed me that as critical as the work of legal services lawyers is, I wasn’t cut out to be one.”

Finding a mentor, discovering her legal niche

When Botsford graduated from law school, she clerked for Justice Francis J. Quirico on the Supreme Judicial Court. It was during her clerkship that she discovered being a judge was exactly what she wanted to do. From 1973 to 1974, she worked with Justice Quirico, whom she described as “one of the most patient, humble people I’ve ever known.”

Botsford’s profound respect and admiration for her former mentor was obvious when she spoke about him. Her eyes lit up when she recalled working with him, and proudly affirmed that Quirico was the reason that she wanted to be a judge.

Botsford remembered that she and Quirico worked late hours and would sometimes eat dinner together in the North End after a long day. “Even though he didn’t drink, on a few occasions, a bottle of wine would arrive at our table,” she said. The judge looked around the room and recognized the face of the gift giver as someone he had sent to prison years ago.

Botsford related this same story at Quirico’s memorial service in 2000 and added at the end, “This experience defined essential qualities of the judge—a man of remarkable memory, but more to the point, a man of such fairness and integrity that even those he had sent off to prison respected him.”

Directing her career toward a judicial appointment

After finishing her clerkship, Botsford “had to go back to the real world,” and worked as an associate at Hill & Barlow for about nine months, until Frank Bellotti was elected as the attorney general. Botsford applied for a job and began working for Bellotti’s Government Bureau as an assistant attorney general. She described her work for the Office of the Attorney General as “fascinating, challenging and fun.” “We had a great group of people,” she smiled. “The whole office was wonderful.”

Botsford’s time working for Bellotti proved to be more than just a stepping-stone in her career. It was during this time that she became reacquainted with fellow Boston attorney S. Stephen Rosenfeld, her current husband (they had met several years earlier while she was a law student).

She frequently collaborated with Rosenfeld on a professional basis, and after four years there, she left to form her own small firm—Rosenfeld, Botsford & Krokidas—with her husband and a friend, Maria Krokidas. There, she worked on civil and administrative litigation and tried to learn about estate planning, which she said was one of the most difficult tasks she has taken on.

After several years in private practice, Botsford decided to return to the public sector, where she seemed to feel most comfortable. Up until this point in her career, she had only done civil work. In order to gain experience on the criminal side of the law, from 1983 to 1989, she worked as an assistant district attorney for Scott Harshbarger in a variety of roles, ranging from chief of the Appeals and Training Bureau, to a trial attorney, to the chief of the Family and Community Crimes Bureau.

On the bench

With 16 years of public and private service in a diverse range of practice areas behind her and seven new judgeships created by the Legislature in 1988, Botsford felt that the opportune time had come for her to seek a spot on the bench. She applied, and in 1989 was appointed by Gov. Michael Dukakis to the Superior Court.

“My first case was a construction accident in which the plaintiff had minor injuries. It was a loss of consortium claim,” she remembered. Botsford pointed out, “For some judges, it’s hard to transition because the position seems isolating. It didn’t feel that way for me, though, maybe because I hadn’t done a lot of trial work before being on the bench.”

She noted that learning evidence and figuring out how to conduct a trial were two major challenges for her. She also said that the amount of work is “constant.” “You’re working all the time,” she said, although she quickly clarified that she wasn’t complaining and that she loved the work.

During Botsford’s recent swearing-in ceremony, Superior Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Rouse called her “a judge’s judge” and said that “work is her passion.” Botsford just shrugged off the compliment and acknowledged that working hard is part of being a judge.

Time away from the job

While work on the bench is a major focus in Botsford’s life, she has tried her best to remain connected to her family and her community. She has one son, Sam, who is 24 years old, as well as three stepchildren, although she candidly admitted that balancing her career with her family life has been “the most challenging aspect of life.”

“I second-guess it all the time,” she said. “You always wonder about things—there are no easy answers.”

Despite Botsford’s early exit from the Harvard School of Education more than 30 years ago, education remains a priority for her. In fact, she took a break from her judicial work in 2001 to volunteer with Citizen Schools, an after-school enrichment program that pairs Boston middle school students with local professionals to generate hands-on learning projects.

Botsford spent seven months with the organization, helping to recruit volunteer attorney teams at high-powered Boston law firms to be writing coaches for eighth-graders. She cited this experience as one of her proudest achievements.

Botsford also mentioned another education-related endeavor—her 2005 Hancock v. Driscoll Report to the SJC—as a major achievement in her career. Despite the fact that the court ruled 5-2 to dismiss the case, the report and the case are important landmarks in the ongoing discussion of state funding for public education. “It was a lot of work putting it together,” she noted, but pointed out how rewarding it was to complete the report and present the information in a way that people could understand.

Reflecting on changes in the profession

While Botsford was a law student, only 3 percent of attorneys and less than 10 percent of American law students were women. She noted that one of the biggest changes she’s seen since she began practicing more than 30 years ago is the increasing number of female judges and lawyers, as well as a more diverse mix of ethnicities among judges and court staff. “We have a long way to go, though,” she added.

Botsford also observed a more concerted effort on management within the past five years. In decades past, she said that the concept of judges having responsibility for case and session management would have been “foreign.” “Because people’s jobs (in the judicial system) are very individualized, implementing an initiative is a challenge. But it goes with the territory; it’s the nature of the work. It’s not easy to do collective planning, and you do see things you wish you could change.”

Assuming an elevated role

Botsford is excited to take on her new role on the state’s highest court. “There’s a different focus on the SJC and more time to devote to cases,” she explained, contrasting the fact-finding issues she dealt with as a Superior Court judge with the larger questions of law she will consider as an associate justice. “I look forward to the ability to study the development of the law in particular areas, which you don’t often have the time or occasion to do as a trial judge.”

Concerned about the SJC being perceived as isolated from the lower courts, she expressed a conscious interest in “staying connected to the trial court.” In fact, Botsford articulated a great appreciation for her peers and co-workers throughout the court system. “I felt proud as a trial judge to be able to work with a fabulous team of other people—court officers, probation officers, judges, attorneys.”

At Quirico’s memorial service in 2000, Botsford described her mentor’s “love and fascination with the development of law in Massachusetts” as “contagious.” There is no doubt that both Quirico’s love of the law and his humility surrounding his prestigious position in the judicial system rubbed off on Botsford.

When asked about any goals beyond her new role on the SJC, she paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any grandiose plans,” she smiled. She reasserted how excited she is to begin her work as an associate justice: “I love this work.”