fb-pixel

Ruth I. Abrams, the first woman on the state’s highest court, dies at 88

Justice Abrams was the first woman on the SJC.
Justice Abrams was the first woman on the SJC.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2000

Ruth I. Abrams, who was appointed by Governor Michael Dukakis as the first woman on the state’s highest court in 1977 and remained the only female jurist there for more than two decades, died Thursday at age 88.

Justice Abrams died at Springhouse Senior Living Community in Boston of heart problems, according to her brother, George S. Abrams, an attorney who practiced law with her in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

During her 22 years on the Supreme Judicial Court, Justice Abrams wrote some of the court’s most far-reaching opinions about the modern family, women’s rights, and criminal law, bringing a unique perspective to a bench that had been all male since its founding in 1692.

Advertisement



“In many ways, she was like Sandra Day O’Connor,” Margaret H. Marshall, retired chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, said, referring to the first woman appointed to the US Supreme Court, in 1981.

Marshall, who became the second woman on the state’s highest court in 1996, said Abrams, a mentor, was “way, way ahead of her time.”

Justice Abrams was a strong, if soft-spoken, advocate for women in the court system. At a time when some female lawyers were assumed to be stenographers, she quietly pushed for change.

When a court-sponsored study found sexist language and behavior still widespread in 1989, she helped write a handbook for judges, lawyers, and court employees. It urged court officials and attorneys to eschew touching, sexual jokes, and remarks on pregnancy, clothing, and body parts.

Justice Abrams knew first-hand that the court system had not taken women lawyers seriously. She told the American Bar Association in a series of tape-recorded interviews in 2009 and 2010 that the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, where she worked as a prosecutor in the 1960s, discouraged her from going into courtrooms to observe rape cases.

Advertisement



Jurors would think the case was unimportant, she recalled being told, “because if it were really bad, a woman wouldn’t be there.”

And women lawyers weren’t the only ones treated as second-class citizens, Justice Abrams recalled. “Jurors were all men at that time because women were exempted if they had children, if they were teachers — there is a whole history of discrimination against women as jurors in this state,” she told the bar association.

Justice Abrams became an important mentor to other women lawyers, some of whom followed her onto the bench.

After being sworn in in 1977, Justice Abrams spoke at the State House, with acting House Speaker William McLean of Fairhaven (middle) next to Governor Michael Dukakis.
After being sworn in in 1977, Justice Abrams spoke at the State House, with acting House Speaker William McLean of Fairhaven (middle) next to Governor Michael Dukakis.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Marshall was in the general counsel’s office of Harvard University in 1996 when a seat opened up on the high court. Marshall, a former president of the Boston Bar Association, got a phone call from Justice Abrams, whom she knew only casually. Justice Abrams suggested she apply for the opening even though Marshall had never been a judge.

“It had never occurred to me to do that,” said Marshall, who was soon tapped by Governor William F. Weld to fill the vacancy and ultimately rose to chief justice. “I’d never had a personal conversation with her other than bar-related activities. She was so kind and helpful, and I saw that repeated with other justices appointed to the court.”

Justice Abrams was born in Boston in 1930, the eldest of three children, to a family of lawyers. Her father and her two siblings, George and Susan Abrams Medalie, were attorneys. George Abrams described his sister as an avid reader and devoted fan of the Boston Red Sox, the old Boston Patriots, and then the New England Patriots.

Advertisement



A 1953 graduate of Radcliffe College, Justice Abrams attended Harvard Law School, where she was one of only 13 women graduates in the class of 1956.

“It could not have been easy to be a woman law student at Harvard in the 1950s nor to launch a career in Boston at that time, but Ruth Abrams scaled each challenge with grace and with a commitment to open doors for others,” said Martha Minow, a Harvard professor and former dean of the law school.

Justice Abrams practiced law for several years with her father and brother, then joined the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, working there most of the 1960s.

Among the defendants she helped prosecute was Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler, according to her brother.

After stints as a division chief in the state Attorney General’s Office and as a special counsel to the Supreme Judicial Court, Justice Abrams was appointed a superior court judge in 1972 by then-Governor Francis Sargent. Five years later, Dukakis elevated her to the state’s highest court.

In 1978, she wrote a majority opinion that employers with disability insurance plans couldn’t discriminate against women with pregnancy-related disabilities.

In a landmark opinion eight years later, she wrote that courts couldn’t allow a man to control his ex-wife by cutting off alimony if she did something he didn’t like.

“A divorced spouse has no right to exercise control over a former spouse’s life, and the court may not attempt to create such a right through the alimony provisions of a divorce judgment,” she wrote.

Advertisement



In 1999, she expanded the legal definition of family when she wrote the majority opinion granting visitation rights after a breakup to a lesbian who had helped raise her partner’s son. Four years later, her former protege, Chief Justice Marshall, wrote the landmark opinion that legalized same-sex marriage.

Margot Botsford, who served on the Supreme Judicial Court from 2007 to 2017 and considered Justice Abrams a mentor, said in an e-mail that Justice Abrams’s opinions were a “model of clarity, completeness and brevity.’’

“For somebody coming after, when you would realize an Abrams opinion was going to be the guiding light, you’d breathe a sigh of relief,” Botsford said.

Justice Abrams, who never married, retired in 2000 at 70, mandatory retirement age for judges. She was a doting aunt to two nieces and two nephews, according to her brother.

Funeral services will be private.

Arthur R. Miller, a former Harvard Law professor and friend of Justice Abrams, said she “devoted her entire life to law and the legal system through public service,” according to a 2003 article in the Harvard Law Bulletin. “I have never really met anyone more dedicated to her job and to doing it right than Ruth.”

Justice Abrams quietly pushed for more equality in the judicial system for women.
Justice Abrams quietly pushed for more equality in the judicial system for women.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.