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Federal judge breaks new ground

First black, female judge on federal bench in Mass. is committed to helping others

Denise J. Casper encourages others to set high goals.

It is fitting that US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper replaced a mentor, the late Reginald C. Lindsay, one of the first black judges to sit on the federal bench in Massachusetts. She has taken over his courtroom on the fifth floor of the Moakley courthouse. His portrait hangs there, a reminder of all the work he did, and all that Casper can accomplish.

Like Lindsay, Casper has broken ground in her own way. At 44, she’s the first black woman to sit on the federal court in Massachusetts. And like her mentor, she’s committed to encouraging others who might one day follow her.

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“If you haven’t figured everything out, it will be OK, hang in there,’’ she tells the young lawyers she encounters every day and through programs with the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association. “I just tell them that they should set their goals high, and the first and foremost thing you can do is your best work.’’

“She’s an exceptional role model,’’ says US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf. At her relatively young age, he adds, Casper brings a fresh perspective to an aging federal court system in Massachusetts. “Younger people have had different experiences, and it’s valuable to have that on the court.’’

Soon after her appointment to the court in 2010, Wolf says, Casper became an obvious choice to be a sponsor of two fellowships administered by the federal court system in Massachusetts: the David S. Nelson Fellowship for inner-city high school students, named in honor of the first black judge to sit on the Massachusetts federal bench; and the Lindsay fellowship, named after Casper’s mentor and intended for college students considering law school.

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Casper says she wants to pass along the guidance she received throughout her education and training, as a student at Wesleyan University and Harvard Law School, an intern in the US attorney’s office in New York, and a law clerk for two Appeals Court justices.

Early in her career, Casper left law for a while to teach. She has also worked as a lawyer in the private sector, in the US attorney’s office, and in the Middlesex district attorney’s office. But she embraced the opportunity to be a federal court judge and a public servant, fulfilling a sense of duty instilled by her social worker father and librarian mother from Long Island. Today, Casper is settled in the Boston area with her husband, Marc Casper, the chief executive of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., and their 8-year-old twin boys.

“She understands her role in history, and she wants to do her best work,’’ says Damian W. Wilmot, a lawyer with Goodwin Procter LLC, who sought Casper’s advice when she was an assistant US attorney, and who has remained her close friend.

Casper hasn’t forgotten the lessons she’s learned, perhaps especially from Lindsay. “He would chew people out, but he would hear you out,’’ she says. “I’ve found mentors of all colors along the way, of all genders, and that was a key for me to find a place in the legal community.’’

Milton J. Valencia is a Globe reporter. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia.
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