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Spotlight: 1990

When Spotlight used hidden cameras to catch state judges skipping out on work

“The unspoken motto of the court system might well be: Get it done in the morning or put it off to another day,” read the first entry in the series.

Photos from the 1990 series show Massachusetts judges outside of their courtrooms during times they were supposed to have been at work.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Spotlight Team: Gerard O’Neill (editor), Dick Lehr, John Aloysius Farrell, Patricia Wen, and Ardys J. Kozbial (researcher)


They went golfing. They went drinking. They went shopping. Or, they just went home. When they should have been working, a host of judges in Massachusetts in 1990 were routinely sneaking out early, as cases backed up and victims and the accused alike awaited justice. “The unspoken motto of the court system might well be: Get it done in the morning or put it off to another day,” wrote John Aloysius Farrell in the first of the five-part series.

Over a seven-month investigation, the Spotlight Team trailed 53 judges, finding a startling pattern of truancy: They caught 27 of them leaving in the early afternoon. Judges might hear cases in the mornings, but despite their reputations for burning the midnight oil, their courtrooms were often silent by 2 p.m.

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This investigation, more than most, involved a level of spy craft: Journalists used walkie-talkies to communicate, and tailed subjects as they left courthouses. Some of the story’s photos were taken with a camera hidden inside a book with the pages cut out. Globe photographer John Tlumacki spent days crouched in the back of a van, angling his camera through curtains to capture judges unobtrusively. “We sometimes spent a week on one judge trying to photograph them and get their timeline,” he recalls.

The series, when it was published, was dramatically visual: In photographs taken in the middle of the day, several judges were seen smoking cigars; another was leaving a country club, where he’d had a beer in front of him, his tie loosened. One photo showed a court officer asleep in an empty courtroom in the middle of the afternoon.

Patricia Wen, the current editor of Spotlight, was one of the reporters on the series. “As it turns out, now my husband is a superior court judge,” she says. “He tells me that if he ever has to leave work early, he is always wondering, Is there a Spotlight camera out there?”

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