Not long after he had taken the bench in the early 1970s,US District Court Judge Joseph Tauro was assigned to hear a lawsuit alleging abuse at a state-run institution for the developmentally disabled. After reading the complaint, Tauro decided to visit the Belchertown facility to see the conditions for himself.
“It was not fit to live in,” he recalled Wednesday.
It was a case that would come to define Tauro’s legacy. He would go on to preside over the class-action lawsuit for more than two decades, forcing Massachusetts to spend millions improving care and earning a legacy as a champion for those with disabilities.
“The Massachusetts system became a model, not just for the United States, but for the world,” he said. “It was very rewarding to see.”
Tauro announced Wednesday that he will retire from full-time duties after more than four decades on the Massachusetts bench, the longest active stint in the court’s history.
Tauro, who announced his retirement on his 83d birthday, will remain on the bench as a senior judge, with a focus on criminal cases.
Beyond the Belchertown case, Tauro is perhaps best known as the first judge to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of gay marriages, a milestone decision that paved the way for this year’s Supreme Court decision rejecting DOMA.
Tauro wrote that the law “induces the Commonwealth to violate the equal protection rights of its citizens” and that Congress had defined marriage “for the one purpose that lies entirely outside of legislative bounds, to disadvantage a group of which it disapproves.”
“And such a classification, the Constitution clearly will not permit,” he wrote.
In an interview, Tauro noted the significance of the DOMA case and said it was rewarding to be on the “cutting edge” of an important legal fight. In the aftermath of the decision, he received an outpouring of support from advocates for gay marriage, he said.
In 1989, Tauro oversaw an agreement to settle a discrimination suit filed by minority families against the Boston Housing Authority. At the time, Tauro told the Globe his experiences growing up during World War II as a second-generation Italian-American lent the case personal significance.
“I am very sensitive to bigotry,” he told the Globe then. “I am very empathetic to those who insist that they be treated equally.”
Tauro said he decided to retire to give someone else a chance to serve on the bench and so he can spend more time with his family.
“I have a very close relationship with my wife, June, and I’d like to spend a little more time with her,” he said. “I owe her at least a trip or two.”
He announced his retirement as a birthday present to himself, he quipped. Yet he plans to remain an active presence on the court as a senior judge, retaining about 60 percent of his current caseload. His retirement takes effect Sept. 26.
The son of G. Joseph Tauro, former chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Tauro served as chief judge on the federal bench from 1992 to 1999.
Before being appointed to the bench, he served as the US attorney for Massachusetts and chief legal counsel to Governor John A. Volpe. He graduated from Brown University in 1953 and Cornell University Law School in 1956.
As word of his retirement spread, colleagues said Tauro will leave a lasting legacy as one of the state’s preeminent jurists.
“He is not just an excellent legal scholar; he shows courage as a judge,” said Patti Saris, chief judge of the US District Court.
But critics said Tauro had a reputation for judicial activism and at times let his personal views influence his approach.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said Tauro’s decision on DOMA reflected such activism.
“In his ruling, he saw that there was no credible justification for marriage between a man and a woman,” he said. “We totally disagree with that finding.”
Last year, Tauro rejected a challenge to the state’s abortion clinic buffer zone law, saying the 35-foot buffer zone left “ample alternative means of communication.” In June, the Supreme Court agreed to review the state’s law.
Mark Brodin, a Boston College law professor who was Tauro’s first clerk on the federal bench, said Tauro has been an “extraordinary jurist” known for fair and scrupulous rulings. He left a further legacy, he said, as a mentor to “countless dozens of clerks” over the years.