A Grateful Listener: Family Court Judge Reflects on Lessons Learned

Today I’m very pleased to be able to host a guest blog from the Hon. James V. Menno ‘86, who recently retired after more than two decades of service as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.

Despite the number of people sitting on the hard benches in this sunlit courtroom, there is a respectful silence.  An ordinary person is sitting in the witness box.  She has taken an oath to tell the truth.  Her descriptive answers to her attorney’s questions begin to weave together a story.  It is a deeply personal story that provides unique insight into her and the children of her fractured family.  She tells this story to another ordinary person, me, who also happens to be the judge. We are separated by a bench, a black robe and the roles we play.  But we are joined together as co-participants in the daily unfolding of the actual Rule of Law.

Her role is to honestly tell the difficult story that has led to this moment. Tomorrow, her husband will sit in the same chair and do the same.  My role is to listen to them as unique individuals, determine which facts are true, and (utilizing the applicable law) make a decision that will allow them and their children to transition from one family to two single-parent families.  Whew! What a daunting task this is for both of us, the storyteller and the listener.

For more than 22 years in the Plymouth and Norfolk County Probate and Family Courts of Massachusetts, I was allowed the privilege of listening to many good and decent people tell me their stories.  Many of these fellow human beings were reluctantly facing the state-imposed ending of their most significant relationship—their marriage.

Some of the stories were dark and bereft of hope. I remember listening to a 22-year-old mother seeking a restraining order against an abusive boyfriend. I had an eerie feeling that I knew her. Shockingly, I realized that she was the same 12-year-old child who was neglected and abused by her own parents in a case I had heard 10 years before.

Many stories were just plain sad. In divorce, that is pretty much par for the course. However, I choose to remember stories that were inspiring and redemptive. For example, I recall the father and his 11-year-old daughter who weathered three years of supervised parenting time and now were reunited and enjoying normal everyday events, like eating ice cream and taking bike rides all by themselves.

Occasionally, late in the day after the court had emptied, I would take a break from the burdensome writing tasks in my lobby.  I would walk into my quiet courtroom and sit down on one of the church-like pews in the back.  From there I would look up at my bench in the front of the courtroom.  I would try to imagine what it felt like to be sitting here. This exercise always succeeded in delivering a punch to my nose with the reality of my duty.

It has now been more than a year and a half since I retired from this way of life. Honestly, I was tired and knew that it was the right time for me to move on. It was simultaneously the most rewarding and personally draining work I had ever done.

The transition back to non-judicial life has not been as smooth as I had anticipated.  Chatting with other retirees in the checkout-line at Costco on a Tuesday morning just isn’t the same. But now that I am not facing the daily stress and pressure of hearing too many cases in not enough time, the reality of what I spent the last two decades of my life doing has become clear. I am forever grateful for the judicial life I experienced each day. I know deep within that I found my calling and purpose when I became a family court judge. It made me a better father, husband, teacher and human being.  I sometimes miss the purposefulness of what I did each day as I listened to some courageous people attempt to truthfully tell their story while maintaining faith in the court system.

My self-imposed one-year sabbatical from family law has been fruitful. I continue to teach two law-related classes in the Woods College of Advancing Studies to undergraduates at Boston College, which I have done for 16 years now. I am also doing part-time divorce conciliation with attorneys and their clients in an effort to help them reach resolution. But, most meaningful to me, I am fulfilling a life’s desire by writing a book about my human and spiritual journey as a person, lawyer, judge, husband, father, and friend.

I could never have imagined the amazing journey on which I was embarking that sunny day in May 1986 when I graduated from Boston College Law School as a newly married lawyer without a definite job. I am profoundly grateful for the legal education I received at BC Law, and the opportunity to be a member of such a welcoming community of fellow students and professors. Over the years, the connection has continued. Professor Dan Coquillette’s text on lawyers and moral responsibility has been the foundation for my course on law and morality. Professors Paul Tremblay and Mark Brodin have both guest-lectured at my past judicial conferences to 50 family court judges on casuistry/decision-making and evidence, respectively. Professor Bob Bloom has always been a lifeline for me when I needed him, and I can still remember Professor Tom Kohler showing up at Emmet Lyne’s house the night before the funeral of the dearest member of the class of 1986, James Farrell in 2004. Several times a year since about 10 years after graduation, a band of regulars from our class have continued to meet at the Stockyard in Brighton for dinner, friendship, support and laughs—Warren Tolman, Skip Jenkins, Fred Gilgun, Irwin Schwartz, Tom Melville, and Emmett Lyne and myself. The community born at BC Law continues to live, grow and support. These brothers have truly been a blessing to me.

My Irish Catholic mom—-I called her “TM or Top Mom”—was a true hero to me. She always taught me to write a thank you to those people who helped me along the path of my life. So that is what I am now doing: to all those folks who helped me begin my journey at BC Law and to all the heroic storytellers who have traveled through my courtroom, I am eternally grateful. Thanks and blessings to you all.


James V. Menno, BCLS ‘86 is a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.  He teaches at The Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College.  He is presently writing a book on his experiences.

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