2013 Coffin Lecturer, Judge Nancy Gertner: “Judging is about choice”

Oct. 22, 2013

PORTLAND, Maine – Too often, judges in America put procedural rules and the complex formalities of the justice system ahead of actual justice, Judge Nancy Gertner believes.

“Judging is about choice. Will I allow another story in my courtroom that a defense counsel wants to present?” said Judge Gertner, a Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School and a retired federal judge from Massachusetts.

“Choice. One opens the door to the courtroom, and one closes it,” Judge Gertner said. “We have come to believe that process is justice. It is an illusion to suggest that judges have no choice.”

The disconnect between the aspirations of the law and what it delivers was a theme of Judge Gertner’s talk on Oct. 21, as she delivered the 21st Annual Frank M. Coffin Lecture on Law and Public Service. She spoke to about 300 people at the Abromson Community Education Center in Portland.

The lecture series, sponsored by the University of Maine School of Law, honors the late Judge Frank M. Coffin, longtime federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, former member of Congress, and renowned leader and mentor in public service.

A champion of civil rights and women’s rights, Judge Gertner is a teacher, an author and a former defense lawyer. As a criminal lawyer, she defended battered women charged with homicide and other crimes, and was one of the first lawyers to convince a judge to admit testimony about battered woman syndrome. In civil cases, she often represented women who faced discrimination in the workplace, from factory workers to executives.

Judge Gertner was nominated to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, and she served as U.S. District Court Judge in Massachusetts from 1994 to 2011. Judge Gertner reflects on a storied career in her 2011 autobiography, entitled In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate.

Judge Gertner teaches criminal law, criminal procedure, forensic science and sentencing at Harvard Law School. She is a graduate of Barnard College and Yale Law School, and received her M.A. in Political Science at Yale University. She has been an instructor at Yale Law School, teaching sentencing and comparative sentencing institutions, since 1998. In 2008, Judge Gertner became only the second woman (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was first) to receive the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.

The complete recording of the 2013 Frank M. Coffin Lecture on Law and Public Service is available here.


Media contact: Trevor Maxwell, communications director at Maine Law
Office: 207-228-8037/ Cell: 207-286-4431/ email:

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