‘Pretty Good Justice’
Federal Judge Michael Ponsor Reflects on an Eventful Career
When Michael Ponsor was 8 years old, he wrote to Harvard Law School and said he wanted to enroll.
The registrar actually wrote him back, saying he looked forward to entertaining his application someday. As it turned out, that prediction wasn’t too far off; Ponsor actually attended Harvard as an undergraduate and then went to Yale Law School. That’s still a remarkably prescient career plan for a second-grader.
“I’m not sure why,” he told BusinessWest, trying to explain his early attraction to law. “I think, like most kids, I had a strong interest in what was fair and what wasn’t fair, and I had a vague sense that’s what the law was about. And I think I was right — that is what the law is about, trying to do what’s fair.”
Ponsor did more than parlay his childhood dream into a law career; he eventually ascended to the federal bench, and has served as a district judge in the U.S. District Court in Springfield for almost 20 years.
In a broad, candid conversation with BusinessWest at the twilight of his career, Ponsor — who began his career in criminal defense — kept coming back to that notion of giving everyone a fair shake.
“The goal is to give both sides a truly fair trial, and that is not easy,” he said, comparing his philosophy to Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery in Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, with its motto, “if you can’t get it here, you can probably get along without it.”
“I feel like I could put a sign out on the courthouse: ‘Ponsor’s Pretty Good Justice,’” he said in a bit of self-effacement. “I feel like pretty good justice is pretty darn hard, and human beings have struggled in the 10,000 years of recorded history to develop systems that deliver pretty good justice.
“I don’t have any illusions that I’m perfect; I think it’s important to be proud of our system of justice but also honest about its limitations,” he continued. “If anything, I would like people to remember me as a good, fair judge. I would like prosecutors and defense attorneys to remember me that way, people representing corporations and people suing corporations. That’s the most important thing.”
As a lengthy search for Ponsor’s successor continues — he announced his intention to semi-retire in 2010 (more on that later) — he sat down with BusinessWest to discuss his long journey in law, one bookended by a precocious child’s letter to Harvard and the novel he wrote nearly 60 years later.
That work of fiction, published just last week, is called The Hanging Judge and deals with a drive-by shooting in Holyoke that evolves into a federal case.
“Like many first novels, it’s somewhat autobiographical in content; it’s about a judge who sits in Springfield,” he explained. And he hopes it won’t be the only novel in what may become an intriguing second career; he’s already at work on a follow-up.
But his first love has always been the law.
Ponsor, a native Chicagoan whose family moved to Minnesota during his childhood, didn’t establish Massachusetts roots until attending Harvard. During those years, he fed a sense of adventure and a desire to do something different by spending a year in Kenya, teaching at a training institute in Nairobi.
“It was an exciting place,” he said. “When I arrived in 1967, Kenya was only three years post-independence. There was such an extraordinary sense of hope. It would be like coming to the U.S. in 1800. I had a terrific year there, but I also saw a lot of poverty, and I had a chance to get to know a culture different from mine.”
After Harvard, he spent two years in England on a Rhodes scholarship before returning to New England to study law at Yale — during which time he developed an interest in mental-health law and joined a project to provide legal aid to patients at the state mental hospital in Middletown, Conn. “The legal rights of people who are labeled with mental disabilities has always been an area of interest for me,” he explained.
After law school, Ponsor clerked in Boston for federal judge Joseph Tauro for a year, then took a job with a small firm in the city, focusing exclusively on criminal defense.
“I wanted to be Perry Mason,” he said with a laugh, but then I decided I wanted to be Atticus Finch [the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird] and move to a smaller environment.” So, two years later, he began working at a firm in Amherst, blending his criminal-defense activity with other types of civil litigation and domestic work.
Soon after, in 1979, Frank Freedman, who was then the federal district judge in Springfield, tapped him to be a court monitor for a consent decree involving Northampton State Hospital.
“A lawsuit had been brought on behalf of patients, and the heart of the lawsuit was that there were many people institutionalized who could do just as well or better in the community, in smaller settings,” Ponsor explained. “The state of Massachusetts agreed, and the remedy was the creation of a community-based mental-health system.”
The plan was to move people from Northampton State Hospital to community facilities — residential centers, day programs, and other facilities — and Ponsor was charged with overseeing those transitions.
“That was very interesting work, and there was a nice mesh there; I had a real interest in that area of the law,” he said of the mental-health emphasis. “There were difficulties, and some bumps in the road with that process, but on the whole it was a good development, and a much more humane approach to dealing with people with mental disabilities.”
Donning the Robe
In 1984, Ponsor underwent his own transition, when he was appointed to the district court in Springfield as a magistrate judge — essentially the lowest echelon among federal judges.
Magistrate judges, he explained, oversee civil litigation but not criminal cases, although they do handle the preliminary phases of criminal work, such as conditions for prisoner release.
“Those decisions have to be made quickly, and sometimes you don’t have a lot of information,” he said, recalling the very first decision he had to make as a judge. “I was just getting used to wearing a robe and having people stand up when I walked in the courtroom. It was a new criminal case, and the question was, should the defendant be detained or released back to his home?
“There were very good arguments on both sides,” he continued, “and I remember thinking, ‘in about a minute now, the lawyers are going to stop talking, everyone’s going to look at me, and I have to make a decision, and I have no idea what that decision is going to be.’ The family was sitting in the courtroom, and the agents waiting to take him away were in the courtroom; there were strong feelings on both sides. The emotions were like a rollercoaster ready to go over the top, and I had to make the best decision I could under the circumstances.”
Notably, Ponsor doesn’t recall what that decision was; it’s the emotion of the moment that has stuck with him — the gut-churning realization that he had moved from arguing before a judge for a certain decision to having to make that decision himself, and that the calls he made would affect people’s lives in very real ways. That’s a responsibility, he said, that he’s taken seriously ever since.
“Even though you might have an inclination of what you’re going to do, it’s cheating to decide early; you have to come into the courtroom with an open mind and give both sides a chance to persuade you,” he said. “That relatively small bail decision was a kind of window into what I would be doing for the next 30 years.”
One of his most important cases as a magistrate judge involved the closure of the York Street Jail and the construction of the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow, he explained. “The York Street facility was horribly overcrowded, and there had been litigation pending for some time which was coming to a head, and the litigants consented to have the case handled by me.”
Ponsor made the decision to cap the population of the York Street Jail, which posed a serious conundrum because the Ludlow facility hadn’t been completed, and there were more people being sent to jail than could be accommodated. “That created a difficult and, to some, extent, frightening situation. People were getting out of jail early,” he recalled, while other criminals whom judges wanted to send to jail were being set free.
“I remember being quite concerned that some prisoners would be released early and do some terrible thing, and the community would be very offended and upset at what went on. By good luck, that never happened,” he continued. But it stands as an example of issuing a difficult ruling under the limitations of reality — not always a clear-cut call. “We had to work with both sides and make a firm decision and be sure it was complied with.”
After a decade as a magistrate judge, Ponsor was nominated by U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy — and eventually confirmed — to succeed Freedman as the federal district judge in Springfield.
“At that point, I began doing more criminal work,” Ponsor said. He pointed to two developments in particular — one a specific case, the other an overarching trend — that have especially impacted him.
The case was the first death-penalty action in Massachusetts in more than 50 years, the five-month trial in 2000 and 2001 of Kristen Gilbert, who was accused of murdering several patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton. She was found guilty, but avoided the death penalty.
“I felt a particularly heavy responsibility in that case to ensure that both the government and the defense got a fair trial,” Ponsor said. “Ms. Gilbert had done terrible things, and the families of the victims were heartbroken and looking to the legal system to provide a process for weighing her guilt or innocence. At the time, the consequences of the trial were pretty stark, and it was important that the defense got a fair trial. In the end, I’m satisfied that both sides got a fair trial. She’s serving life without parole in the federal Bureau of Prisons.”
The trend he cited was the movement toward mandatory minimum sentences for criminal convictions — in cases involving drugs, guns, and other matters — which started to gain steam during the 1990s.
“There were times when I felt the sentences were too harsh,” Ponsor said. “There is very little more painful for a judge than having to impose a sentence he knows is unjust and excessive, but, unfortunately, I was put in the position of having to impose sentences I didn’t agree with fairly regularly.
“That was part of the job, and I respected the role of Congress in determining these sentences and making sure judges imposed them,” he continued, “but during this time, we saw the prison population expand hugely, to where the U.S. is now, by far, the biggest jailer of its people of any country in the world. I think that’s excessive. There have to be better ways to deter crime and protect the public, but also bring people back into the mainstream and turn them into productive citizens, instead of just warehousing people.”
Ponsor said he’s been able to do some creative things in sentencing — and he wishes judges had a freer hand to dispense justice with the right blend of firmness, compassion, and case-specific context — but says his hands were tied far too often. “The criminal-justice system, not just in federal court but in the states as well, has meted out a number of excessive sentences, and that’s very disturbing. And I have a sense that’s something people are rethinking now.”
In 2010, Ponsor wrote to President Obama and told him he planned to take ‘senior status’ in August 2011 when he turned 65, a precursor to stepping back and ceding his seat to a new federal judge. But the wheels of justice turn slowly in the U.S. Senate, where the politics of federal judgeships can delay confirmations for years. That’s the case now; after one nomination was rescinded last year, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mo Cowan are interviewing candidates for a new nomination.
The delay has made Ponsor more anxious to get on with partial retirement; originally ambivalent about stepping back, he’s now ready to begin the next phase of his life — which will include more traveling and other leisure activities with his wife, as well as more writing — with no regrets.
“There are a lot of really good attorneys in Western Mass. who can do this job and do it well,” he said. “Once my successor is appointed, I’ll probably cut back to about a 25% load. I still love the work, but I want to spend more time writing fiction. My whole life, I’ve had a deep interest in writing.”
Meanwhile, by taking senior status, he has been able to cut back to about 80% of his former load. That means he’s shuttling more cases to Boston while being more selective about the work he accepts. For instance, “I have decided to take no more child-pornography cases,” he noted. “The images you’re forced to look at as a judge in these cases are so appalling and so sickening … I’ve been compelled to do it enough.”
But the positives of being a federal judge far outweigh the negatives, Ponsor said, and have included triumphant moments such as the 2009 completion of a new District Court building on State Street.
“That’s one of the things that I’m proudest of in my 29 years here,” he said. “The court facility on Main Street was totally inadequate, so, in the late 1990s, we began the process of building a new courthourse.”
More than 90 architects submitted ideas; Ponsor was on the team of five who chose the design — by Moshe Safdie — from among those entries, and he participated in the project development and site selection. A sketch of the courthouse, drawn by Safdie seven years before it was actually completed, hangs in Ponsor’s office.
“For many years, I came here at least once a week to walk around the courthouse as it went up,” he said. “When it began to take shape and I saw how beautiful the two trees are in front, I was so excited. It’s an efficient, well-designed, beautiful facility. I love this building, and I hope the people of Western Mass. love it too.”
No matter how slowly the succession process plays out in Washington, Ponsor has no plans to leave his post before a new appointment is made; doing so would shift his entire caseload to judges in Worcester and Boston, which he believes is unfair to them while shortchanging the citizens of Western Mass.
“I am so deeply fond of Western Mass. and its people,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t want to abandon them until someone is here to do the job.”
And that, Garrison Keillor might say, is a pretty good attitude.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com