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Veteran federal judge to retire next spring

US District Court Judge Rya W. Zobel, a popular 34-year veteran and the first female judge of the federal court in Massachusetts, announced Thursday that she will retire and will serve only on senior status.

Zobel’s retirement, effective April 1, will create a fourth vacancy in the federal District Court in Massachusetts, in what is turning into a sweeping makeover of the court.

US District Court Chief Judge Patti B. Saris said in a statement that, “Judge Zobel is beloved as a trial judge because of her pragmatism, creativity, fairness, and sheer intelligence.”

“Back in the days when only 13 judges of the federal bench nationwide were female, Judge Zobel was a role model for all young female litigators hoping someday to become federal judges,” Saris said. “Her appointment has made a huge difference in the perception of equal justice in the courts.”


Zobel, 81, who was one of President Clinton’s considerations for US attorney general two decades ago, has overseen a range of complex cases, from a corporate patent infringement case involving Polaroid and Kodak, to criminal trials and First Amendment cases.

In her years as a judge, she struck down a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority advertising policy that banned promoting the use of condoms, and, in 2005, she took the unusual step of ordering a new trial — on her own, without anyone asking her to — for an arson defendant, after finding that his lawyer, then a state representative, provided inadequate representation.

Zobel was appointed by President Carter in 1979, and remained the only female judge in federal court in Massachusetts for 15 years. She was previously a partner at the law firm then known as Goodwin, Procter & Hoar, specializing in matrimonial law.

Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil liberties lawyer from Greater Boston, called Zobel a pioneer for breaking out of the mold that was typically created for women lawyers at the time.


“She really burst out of the straightjacket into which women lawyers of her generation were put, and she blossomed, and it was very impressive to watch, so I give her a lot of credit for breaking the bonds that were posed on her by a very oppressive era,” Silverglate said. “She was smart, a credit to the bench, and they are going to have one heck of a hard time finding a judge as good as she is to replace her.”

A native of Germany and a Holocaust survivor, Zobel is a graduate of Harvard Law School. From 1995 to 1999, she served as the director of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington. The center trains federal judges and court employees across the country.

Her retirement will create another vacancy in a district that is undergoing sweeping changes.

US District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro retired in September and went on senior status, which allows judges to step down but remain active with a reduced caseload. His replacement has not been named.

US District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf and Judge Michael A. Ponsor also went on senior status in recent years, and President Obama has nominated two replacements. They are awaiting Senate approval. And, retired Judge Edward F. Harrington, who has been on senior status since 2001, will officially step down effective Dec. 31.

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.