JUST OUTSIDE THE JUDGE’S CHAMBERS at the Rhode Island Supreme Court, portraits of past chief justices line the hallway. The pictures date all the way back to 1751 when the position was first occupied by Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of independence.
“Two hundred and fifty-eight years, and they are all men,” says Acting Chief Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg JD ’78 as she leads a visitor through the building. But as the first woman to fill the Rhode Island chief justice seat on even an interim basis, Goldberg has already diversified those ranks. Although she is profoundly aware of her historic position, Goldberg does not see herself as a crusader.
“I don’t remember ever being at a disadvantage because of my gender,” she says. “The legal profession was one of the first to open up access to women because it is, after all, the legal profession.”
But Goldberg is also aware of the inequities that still exist in her field. She notes that while the number of women in the law is now roughly equal to the number of men, the numbers don’t always translate to the highest legal ranks.
“The judiciary in this state has not kept pace with these changes,” she says. When asked why, she states with a slight grin, “The boys like to appoint boys.”
After graduating from Providence College, Goldberg taught elementary school in Providence’s inner city schools for two years before pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer. Her time at Suffolk Law, she says, helped steer her towards a career in prosecution.
“During school, I learned that I had an aptitude for evidence,” she says. “I liked it because the rules are based on reason, and if you understand the reason for the rules, you can appreciate the rule and its application.”
Upon graduation, Goldberg returned to Rhode Island and spent five years as a prosecutor, rising to lead the criminal division before she left to enter private practice. In 1990 Governor Edward DePrete appointed her to the Superior Court bench, and seven years later Governor Lincoln Almond appointed her to the state Supreme Court.
Goldberg believes the ultimate responsibility of the next chief justice will be to maintain public confidence in the legal system.
“This is a very unsettling time, and people look to the courts as a refuge for justice and fairness,” she says.
But if Goldberg is eventually appointed to assume her position on a permanent basis (at press time, the selection process was still ongoing), one thing is assured: that wall of fame will be graced with its first female portrait.
FROM THE DEANLooking Ahead
LAW BRIEFSMasterman Institute Hosts Inaugural Event
ALUMNI PROFILESMaureen McKenna Goldberg