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Joseph Tauro, first federal judge to strike down Defense of Marriage Act, dies at 87

Federal Judge Joseph Tauro in 2013. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

Former US District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro, the first judge to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, died Friday morning at his Marblehead home, his family said. He was 87.

Tauro, appointed by President Nixon in 1972, had served as chief judge of US District Court in Boston from 1992 to 1999.

In 2010, Tauro ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional because it violated the right of married same-sex couples to equal protection under the law and was contrary to the federal government’s long history of allowing states to set their own marriage laws.


The prominent jurist announced in 2013 that he would retire from full-time duties after more than four decades on the Massachusetts bench, the longest active stint in the court’s history. He made the announcement on his 83rd birthday.

FULL OBITUARY: Tauro’s rulings gave people more rights

On Friday, Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, praised Tauro for his decision in the DOMA case.

“Judge Tauro’s decision in the Defense of Marriage Act case is a crucial reminder of the judiciary’s role in protecting individual liberty,” Rose said in a statement. “It’s also a reminder that sometimes getting it right means being bold.”

Rose’s words were echoed by Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defender, or GLAD, a gay rights organization based in Boston.

“Judge Tauro was a no-nonsense and clear-eyed judge, who was also always willing to listen and learn,” said Bonauto, who argued before Tauro in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, which challenged DOMA. “He applied our constitution’s promises to include LGBT people and also had the backbone to become the first federal judge to declare invalid the federal ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ in a full-on constitutional challenge to that law. He set the stage for the rulings that followed.”


Tauro was involved in a number of major cases prior to the DOMA decision.

In the early 1970s, he 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 in a 2013 interview.

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 of dollars 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 told the Globe in 2013. “It was very rewarding to see.”

On Friday, Philip W. Johnston, a former state health and human services secretary and onetime state Democratic Party chair, remembered Tauro’s tireless efforts on behalf of the developmentally disabled.

“As the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services during the 1980s, I worked closely with Judge Tauro following his creation of a consent decree, which had the effect of closing the institutions for our developmentally disabled citizens and establishing a strong network of community programs across the state,” Johnston said in a statement.


Tauro, he said, “made sure the state’s political leadership was held accountable, even at one point threatening to jail legislative leaders if they did not produce the funds necessary to reform the system. Judge Tauro was filled with compassion, humor and intelligence and he made a great difference in improving the lives of millions of the most disabled people in our state and around the globe. He will be very much missed.”

Governor Charlie Baker also credited Tauro for helping the disabled.

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of Judge Tauro and are grateful for his many years of unparalleled public service to both the people of Massachusetts and our nation, in his capacity as Governor [John A.] Volpe’s Chief Legal Counsel, a United States Attorney, and as a judge in the Federal District Court,” Baker said in a statement. “In particular, his work over two decades ensuring the proper care for the developmentally disabled demonstrated the wisdom and compassion of this outstanding judge. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this time.”

Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, offered a tribute as well, calling Tauro a “class act.”

“Judge Tauro was a legend in the Massachusetts legal community,” Healy said. “He was held in the highest esteem by attorneys and justices throughout the Commonwealth.”

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.


And in 2012, he 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.

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.

At the time of his retirement from the bench in 2013, Chief Justice Judge Patti B. Saris offered effusive praise.

“Judge Tauro has a lasting legacy as one of the great judges in Massachusetts,” Saris said at the time. “He has ruled in favor of protecting the rights of the mentally disabled and of gays and lesbians. With his common sense, he led this court as a wise chief.”

His decisions sometimes rankled local pols.

In 2009, Tauro rejected a request from then-state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill to block a lawsuit that asserted that he engaged in a ‘‘pay to play” scheme in awarding a $21 million state lottery contract.

Tauro was the son of G. Joseph Tauro, former chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Bryan Marquard, Frank Phillips, and Martin Finucane of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.