Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian

Justice Gabrielle Wolohojian Reaches the Top of Her Field

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BOSTON — Justice Gabrielle Repsimé Wolohojian has sedulously worked many years in the field of law, first as a lawyer and then as a judge, and has reached the top ranks of her profession. Along the way, she achieved a number of “firsts.” This year, she became the first person of Armenian heritage to ever sit on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) and the first woman of Armenian heritage to ever sit on any US state supreme court. Her Armenian heritage has played an important role in her life and has inspired her in various ways.

Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Supreme Judicial Court

Until this year, Wolohojian served on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, to which she was appointed in 2007. The jurisdiction of state courts is broad. In fact, Wolohojian said, “The jurisdiction of state courts is unlimited. I will tell you that when I was on the Appeals Court, I literally sat on cases which involved murders, and at the same time, on the opposite end of the spectrum, such as, and this is extreme — it did not happen often — an appeal from a water bill.”

In other words, everything and anything you can imagine that has been tried in a Massachusetts administrative agency or in any of the various trial court departments ultimately comes up through the Appeals Court or the Supreme Judicial Court.

Furthermore, cases coming to the Appeals Court are randomly assigned to judges, who sit in panels of three, based on calendars. Wolohojian said “that seemed very connected to me to the idea of public service — that you don’t get to pick. Some of the cases are not that interesting, some of the cases are terrible, some of the cases are so interesting, but your job is just to make yourself available to the best of your ability to every case. I loved that notion.”

The jurisdictions of the Appeals Court and SJC largely overlap but there is one significant difference between the two. Wolohojian pointed out that the Appeals Court does not have jurisdiction over first-degree murder convictions, as only the SJC can take such cases. There are also some types of appeals, like from bar discipline matters, over which the SJC has exclusive jurisdiction.

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While there is the general idea that everyone is entitled to one appeal, Wolohojian said that it would be very inefficient if every case would go to the Appeals Court and then come to the SJC. Instead, in general everyone has the right of appeal to the Appeals Court, but the SJC controls its own docket by deciding what cases to take, with the aforementioned exception of first-degree murder cases.

“Usually,” Wolohojian said, “the SJC takes matters of first impression. In other words, no one has decided the issue yet, so it is better for these to come straight here. Then we can say to all the courts below us that this is what this undecided question is.” This is called direct appellate review, when for the sake of efficiency, to avoid two appeals, a case goes directly to the SJC, skipping the intermediate Appeals Court level.

Though the judges of the SJC decide which cases come to it, all seven work as a team, so it is not an individual decision, and once the case is there, they decide it together. There is, however, an exception, because every month one person works in rotation as an emergency judge, which they call “single justice.” That person takes immediate action because the seven cannot get together, Wolohojian explained. 

The Law Beckons

Wolohojian grew up in an academic household. Her father taught in the Department of French at Rutgers University, and she majored in English at the same institution, but she said she already knew she did not really want to become an academic. However, after graduating Rutgers in 1982, she continued with graduate studies at the University of Oxford in English language and literature.

She said, “I always say sort of glibly that I was an accidental PhD…I found a good dissertation topic and it all seemed to go very easily.” After earning her doctorate, she said, “I didn’t want to be bored. I wanted to do something that would be intellectually interesting but that would not be in an ivory tower, that would have pragmatic real-life consequences. I thought law school would combine these two urges.”

She had no idea what she might specialize in, as she had no role models for law in her family. She said she thought she would be most interested in intellectual property and specifically copyright law, but as she did well in law school, she was urged to apply for a clerkship. She got one with Judge Rya Zobel of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

She said that was the first time that she was really exposed to the law in practice and what happens in court, seeing how lawyers and judges approach their work and present their cases.  She said, “This was the first time I saw that, and it galvanized me.”

Judicial Calling

There is no specific track in the US for becoming a judge. After law school and a couple of clerkships, Wolohojian went into private practice. She said she really loved being a lawyer, but “I always had in the back of my mind the example that I had had clerking for terrific judges. It had lit a little fire in me to someday hope to become a judge myself. There is no guarantee in our system about that.”

After around 20 years of private practice, she said she felt the time had come to apply. In Massachusetts, after filling out an application, the candidate is screened by a committee of over 20 lawyers, some retired judges, which winnow the applicant pool and recommend qualified candidates to the governor’s office. Ultimately, Wolohojian was chosen by Governor Deval Patrick for the Appeals Court.

When asked whether she felt motivated at all to change the world in some way, she responded, “I am not that kind of judge…What really motivates me is finding the right outcome. I don’t want to call it a purely intellectual puzzle because there is a component of fairness in every case.” She said that cases are decided according to principles of law and the actual facts in the case, so that the same principles may lead to different results in cases with different sets of facts. In every case, she said you must ultimately test the results to make sure they are consistent with fairness and justice.

“My job, and this is the best way I have ever figured out how to explain it,” she said, “is to figure out what is right, and then I have the huge privilege that once I have decided what is right, this is actually what is right. It is amazing. But the pressure I feel is that this is a huge responsibility. I never want to make a mistake.”

This approach, she said, is part of the bargain judges have with the greater society, “that, if I and my fellow judges work as hard as we can to always find the right answer, and to do our jobs correctly, apply neutral principles of law, neutrally and fairly, that is how we preserve the rule of law. People respect that. They can tell when you have done your job.”

Wolohojian definitely takes the bargain seriously. She said, “I work all the time. Some would say that if I am awake, I am working. I am often in my office till 8 or 9 at night. Then I will work over the weekend.” She said she was not sure how her schedule would change in the SJC, which has a different work cycle than the Appeals Court, but she stressed that to say the least, “These are not 9 to 5 jobs.”

When interviewed at the end of this April, she said about her new posting, “It feels like an incredible privilege to be able to be given the opportunity to be a judge on the Supreme Judicial Court but also, I have my work cut out for me to get up to speed…The court is an extremely old court, with its own procedures and traditions that I have to learn.”

The seven members of the Supreme Judicial Court include a majority of appointees from Gov. Charlie Baker (five), a Republican, and only two from Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat, including Wolohojian. When asked whether partisan politics is significant in the world of the SJC, Wolohojian suggested looking at the decisions made by the SJC in different periods, when there were different groups of appointees. She said that there is a very small number of split decisions, and said, “If you look at those split decisions, my guess is that you would see that the disagreement is over a pure legal principle, or the consequence of a particular fact, and whether the fact should have made the case go this way or that. The fact that a judge was appointed by a particular governor does not mean that the judge has any kind of political views him or herself, nor does it mean that the judge will view any particular case in a given way. Cases are really driven by the law and the facts.”

She did add that governors do have certain ideas about the types of people they like to put on the bench. She said that Gov. Baker appeared to like to appoint judges who had experience as prosecutors, but many other governors have felt the same way. This was not a partisan political thing, she concluded.

Armenian Language, Armenian Family

Wolohojian’s first language was Armenian because her parents wanted their children to speak and understand the language. Both her parents were, like her, born in the United States. They grew up in Armenian-speaking households because their own parents were immigrants, Wolohojian related. Her father, Albert, was a scholar who knew how to read and write both modern and classical Armenian, while her mother knows how to speak but never learned to read or write.

“I encountered English when I went to nursery school,” Wolohojian recalled, “and apparently came home after the first day and reported to my brother that we have apparently been living in a completely false world. There is something else going on out there…I apparently refused to speak Armenian when I came home. It felt like a little bit of a sense of betrayal when I went to school.”

There was no real Armenian-American community where they grew up so the only chance of the children learning Armenian was at home. Now, of course, she understands and appreciates what her parents did. She said, “It was important to me. I was very close especially to my paternal grandparents, who spoke English but were never facile in that language. It was important to my parents that we be able to communicate with our grandparents and our grandparents be able to communicate with us. I applaud that.”

She was not involved in any Armenian community activities until she started college and founded the Rutgers Armenian Studies program and student club in 1980 with the aid of her father. She said that she learned French well by living a lot in France, as her father was a French professor, and she also studied Italian language and literature for four years. It seemed strange, she said, that she didn’t know how to read or write Armenian.

They went through the student directory and found a fairly large number of Armenian Americans (nota bene: this author was one of the founders of a student club in a neighboring university, provided advice in this process of establishing a student club at Rutgers, and had met the future justice and her father briefly). Wolohojian’s father then began teaching an Armenian language course.

Wolohojian said, “I remember what a pleasure it was for me, when by the end of the first year, I was able to read the Armenian language newspaper to my grandparents and they were so tickled by that. That is not to say that I could understand everything that the newspaper was saying or that I knew what every word in that newspaper meant, especially the more complicated words, but I could read the entire newspaper to them. It gave my father a huge pleasure too to see that he was able to give that to his children, as well as to all these other Armenian-American kids.”

Learning about the Genocide

Wolohojian has noted at various public Armenian community events that due to their unique insights and experiences, descendants of genocide survivors, of which she is one, have a particular obligation to be in public service and to promote and protect the rule of law – something which they themselves did not enjoy. However, she herself did not know her full family story until the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

When she was still in grade school at some point the students were all asked to prepare a family tree, so she went to visit her grandparents and began asking questions. She said, “They kept saying, why are you going into this. Why are you doing this…and they were just so resistant. Finally I would get them to extract names, and I would ask, when was Vartuhi born and when did she die. Every death year was 1915. I was probably very clueless as a child. I don’t think you have the emotional dexterity to figure out what to do.”

She said that probably around 27 people had died in her grandfather’s family alone, and surmised that the silence of her grandparents may have been a protective mechanism to allow them to continue to live and function. She said, “In my family, on both sides people did not talk about what happened during the Genocide. They just didn’t talk. My mother and her siblings knew that her father would refuse to go to church on Maundy Thursday, and that something terrible had happened. That is what they knew.”

Wolohojian learned about the story of her maternal grandfather in 2015, who was one of the intellectuals rounded up in Constantinople on April 24, 2015. Even her mother did not know the full story until then. She had letters and other documents, but many were handwritten in Armenian which she could not read. She got the papers translated and put together a book, with copies for herself and her three siblings. It turned out some of the letters were from her grandfather while he was in prison, and others were letters from people who saw him in prison.

In hindsight, Wolohojian said, “We were brought up, I would say, in a very privileged way, because my grandparents took every step possible to not burden us with their history. And my parents impressed upon us that that history was terrible, but they also didn’t burden us with the details or the knowledge. I feel almost that I am the product of a conspiracy designed to help me succeed.”

Dealing with Sadness

Wolohojian saw a parallel with her grandparents’ approach to life, after the pain experienced in the Armenian Genocide and the application of justice in courts after events have taken place.

She declared, “One of the things that really burdens me as a judge is the sadness embedded in all the cases. … You have to come to learn to somehow make your peace with the fact that the underlying sadness and dysfunction in most cases you can’t do anything to alleviate, because by the time the case comes to you, all of that harm has already happened and you’re deciding…. You can’t help it. You can’t fix it. Your job as a judge is to apply the law and reach the correct legal outcome. You can’t actually go over and alleviate the distress.”

She said, “I think my grandparents’ history is a little bit the same thing. The way I understand it, their incredible delight in their grandchildren’s success and happiness is in some sense the balm for their pains.”

Wolohojian pointed out that everything that comes to her court is because something went wrong. She said though she is swayed by emotion and empathy, she puts it to one side so she can decide the case. She observed, “No one is coming to court to report happiness and satisfaction, so you can get a very skewed view of the world if you start substituting the legal universe for the whole real world.”

To better deal with this, she plays music. A violinist, she is a performing member of the Boston Civic Symphony and also a member of the board of advisors for the organization and radio show “From the Top.”  Wolohojian said, “Music allows me to remember that there are still these important things such as beauty and cooperation and collaboration, and art, and it gives me hope.”

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