The Podium

Judging families

It is Tuesday, motion day, the busiest day of the week in my court. I begin to gear up for the blitzkrieg of cases relating to child-support, custody, parenting time, guardianships, restraining orders, and other family related emergency motions that oftentimes exceed 60 cases in one day. I emerge from the monastic solitude of my judicial lobby and enter the chaos of Courtroom Seven in the Brockton Probate and Family Court.

My able and committed case manager, Mary Looney, has been calling the list of cases for close to one hour as she attempts to make sure each case is ready and the litigants understand the drill. The vast majority of the cases I will hear today will have no attorneys. It is now time for the Rule of Law to come to life. As I enter the courtroom from my side entrance, every person stands. Unfortunately for some there is no choice, it is a standing room only crowd. I never take for granted this show of respect for the Rule of Law and this communal belief that this ordinary man in a black robe will render some form of justice to each of these people who have appeared here today.

I consciously shift my mental focus from the prior trial decision I have been working on this morning which is overdue and is wearing on me. There are now new cases to hear; fires to put out; Band-Aids to apply; and to some people, confessions that there is little that I can do for them.


A panoply of human family drama unfolds in the individual cases that I listen to. A 14-year-old boy refuses to see or have any contact with his father. A 38-year-old mother continues to relapse to her addiction of alcohol and has not seen her two children in close to one year. A divorcing husband and wife wrestle with how to tell one of their “children”who is eight years old, that the husband is not his biological father. A mother seeks continued child-support for a 20-year-old young man, the son of both parties, who has failed out of college, is not working, and has dubious alleged mental illness. What orders will I make for these people?

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I will need to think about these decisions, but right now I have to turn my attention to an immediate ruling necessary on a request to modify a 209 A restraining order. The mother plaintiff, who was tackled to the floor by the father in a heated dispute in front of their two young children, is requesting that I allow the father parenting time with the children “because he won’t harm them, Judge.” I orally state, and then handwrite an order of supervised parenting time. Mary Looney now informs me that we have a difficult emergency matter to hear.

As she hands me the emergency motion for temporary guardianship, she explains to me that the maternal grandmother has just lost her 20-year-old daughter two days ago from a drug overdose and is now before me requesting that I grant her temporary guardianship of her two-year-old grandchild. I look out into the crowded courtroom and scan the faces of people who wait, most of them patiently, to be heard today. No one needs to tell me who this grandmother is. Her body posture and hollow eyes tell me all I need to know. I decide that this case needs some privacy and instruct my court officer to allow her to come up to the side of my bench. I review the file and her affidavit. I express the court’s sympathy for her loss and tell her that I am granting her temporary guardianship of her grandchild. The tears flow freely from her eyes as she thanks me.

I am flooded with emotion myself. I wish her well and struggle to regain my composure. I take this moment for a brief reflection. This work of judging families is just plain hard. One minute, I can witness the most deplorable human behavior imaginable, and then the next, I can meet a heroic individual like this woman. I have learned to take nothing for granted in my 18 years as a Family Court judge. I have become a better father and husband, and hopefully a better person. I also feel a deep intuitive sense that I am doing what I should be doing at this juncture in my life. I take a deep breath and ask Mary to call the next case.

James V. Menno, is an Associate Justice of the Plymouth Probate and Family Court. He also teaches at the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College.