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‘Senior status’ lets federal judges keep working — for free

Judge Rya W. Zobel, 82, went on senior status early this year after 35 years on the bench. She is still handling roughly 100 percent of her caseload, though she plans to start taking on fewer cases.
Judge Rya W. Zobel, 82, went on senior status early this year after 35 years on the bench. She is still handling roughly 100 percent of her caseload, though she plans to start taking on fewer cases. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Two days before Thanksgiving, the shadows of late afternoon had started to creep into the halls of the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in South Boston, and US Senior District Judge Mark L. Wolf still had three cases to hear.

In his late 60s, Wolf is technically retired — old enough to be on the golf course, or in the Bahamas. But, like three other federal judges in Massachusetts, he is on what is known as senior status, which allows the veteran jurists to retire with a full pension but continue working with a reduced caseload.

Without getting paid extra.

The judges are living a life that seems increasingly common among high-achieving people who are approaching or have hit retirement age and have a strong desire to keep working.

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“I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and ask how am I enjoying my retirement,” Wolf later joked, after a docket of cases that included money laundering, bank robbery, and possessing a firearm.

The senior status arrangement, enjoyed by some 500 federal judges around the country, allows older judges to go into semiretirement while mentoring the fresher faces on the bench and helping to clear the court’s cases.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said US Senior District Judge Michael A. Ponsor, 68, who usually presides in Springfield. Ponsor explained the benefits in a recent interview between publicity stops for his first novel, events he has been able to do more frequently since he reduced his caseload.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said US Senior District Judge Michael A. Ponsor, 68.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said US Senior District Judge Michael A. Ponsor, 68.(Steven G. Smith for The Boston Globe)

“Most people don’t want to stop working completely, I think most people would want to continue contributing, and the public gets the benefit of people who are essentially donating their time,” Ponsor said.

He paused.

For those who have built a life around their role as a judge, he said, “It’s not easy to give that up. And if you don’t have to give it up completely and can still leave time to yourself to travel, spend time with your family, that’s a wonderful solution to an internal conflict.”

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The average salary for a District Court judge in 2014 was nearly $200,000. While judges who go on senior status would be paid that amount through their retirement benefit, they receive tax breaks on that benefit as long as they continue to work on senior status.

The judges are also allowed to retain their chambers and some law clerks, depending on how many cases they handle.

Since 2010, some of the court’s most senior judges have been replaced by five new appointees: Denise J. Casper and Timothy S. Hillman were appointed in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Over the last year, judges Indira Talwani, Mark G. Mastroianni, and Leo T. Sorokin have also been sworn in. Local lawyer Allison Burroughs has been nominated and is awaiting Senate confirmation — meaning six of the state’s 13 federal judgeships will have been filled within the last four years.

Seasoned judges like Wolf and Ponsor, who oversaw the only two death penalty trials in the state in modern times, and veteran judges Rya W. Zobel and Joseph L. Tauro recently went on senior status, creating the vacancies that allowed for the appointments.

Retired federal judge Nancy Gertner, who stepped down in 2011 and now teaches at Harvard, said she chose to leave the bench entirely so that she could speak more openly about judicial matters, something she wouldn’t be able to do as a judge. She recently wrote a Globe column criticizing the legal process used in the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting investigation. She has also has given media interviews, and said, “I feel freer now to be critical.”

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“Do I miss the bench? Yes, there’s something very special about being able to assess a just result, in your courtroom,” she said.

Nationally, there are more than 500 senior status judges on the federal bench, and last fiscal year, they handled nearly 30 percent of all trials. Judges can move to senior status once they reach age 65 if they have 15 years of experience. After age 65, judges must follow the Rule of 80: Their age and years of service must add up to 80. They can retire at age 67 if they have 13 years of experience, for instance, or at age 70 if they have 10 years.

In the federal court in Boston, five judges are old enough to go on senior status at any time, including Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who is presiding over the Boston Marathon bombing trial scheduled to begin in January.

Zobel, 82 and the first female federal judge in Massachusetts, went on senior status early this year after 35 years on the bench. She is still handling roughly 100 percent of her caseload, though she plans to start taking on fewer cases.

Zobel said her decision to become a senior status judge, years after she was eligible, was made to allow newer judges a place on the bench, “to reflect new ideas, new people, younger people, with fresh views on how things should be done.”

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US Senior District Judge Mark L. Wolf.
US Senior District Judge Mark L. Wolf.(David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File)

She added, however, that she still gets excited about trials.

“I’m never bored, always challenged intellectuality, and so the ability to do this work I really love, and do it at a lesser pace, it’s just wonderful,” she said.

Ponsor, who is working on his second novel after writing a fictional account of a death penalty trial, was the only judge in Springfield for years, even after he tried to retire, and “I couldn’t imagine walking away from the job.”

“That may sound hokey, overblown, but yet it’s actually true,” he said.

Wolf has increasingly worked outside the courtroom since he went on senior status in early 2013, speaking about anticorruption efforts. He has spoken in front of government watchdog groups in Eastern Europe and in Russia, as well as before the Congress. He is lobbying for the establishment of an international anticorruption court.

And he is still a consistent presence at One Courthouse Way in South Boston. In February, he is slated to preside over the resentencing trial of admitted serial killer Gary Lee Sampson, who faces the death penalty.

“I don’t always like it, but I love it,” Wolf said. “One of the most appealing things is, if I want to keep working, nobody can make me stop.”

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