An interview with Margaret Marshall

A week prior to the graduation ceremony, justNews sat down with this year's honorary commencement speaker, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, for an exclusive interview. The South African-born justice has gained much publicity over the years as an advocate for civil rights in her homeland and in the United States, as a controversial figure because of her verdict in November of 2003 to provide legal justification for gay marriage and as the first female Chief Justice of the state's highest court since its inception in 1692.

justNews: This is a heated topic these days, but with the new developing countries today-Iraq, for example-there are the indigenous traditions of certain countries that are valued by the people, but the creation of a viable and proper system of government demands looking to the American one. So how are these factors reconciled?

Margaret Marshall: If you look at, for example, the South African constitution-and most recently I was in Berlin and looked at the Brandenburg constitution-there are many [provisions] for the protection of certain minority groups with respect to their culture and with respect to their language. Certainly, religious freedom is critical and I don't know of any new constitution charter that doesn't recognize these freedoms ... I do think that by the end of the 20th century, without exception that I know of, new democracies have looked to the requirement of having the fundamental guarantees ....

Obviously Iraq is moving toward the development of a constitution and I couldn't possibly speculate on what this constitution will or won't include. It's really the model I look at more than anything else. And it's that model that says, in essence, no matter who or what system or which group of people are in power at any given time, these are the fundamental rights and liberties and rights of individuals that cannot be transgressed.

JN: How do you think education is a building block in developing notions of justice and morality for citizens?

MM: I think we can almost take, as we say, judicial notice of the fact that totalitarian or dictatorship governments often persecute intellectuals and there's a very good reason for that. Intellectuals exercise and often challenge rigid, narrow views that exclude certain members of society....

I think that a dedication to education and to academic excellence is the sine qua non for democracy. But you need an educated citizen. In contemporary terms that is viewed more as a need for an educated citizen to participate in the economy, but I think it goes deeper than that. In order to participate in public debates and understand public debates, you need an educated democracy.

JN: Regarding your famous decision on gay marriage, how do you think it impacted the changing worldview of America and of the international community?

MM: It's a thoughtful question and I hope you will understand if I will not comment one way or the other. And the reason for that is because there are still cases relating to that issue that come before the court, and so I simply don't comment on this case or any case which I've decided on.

JN: Reflecting on your experiences in South Africa as well as your cases in the United States and your illustrious career as the first female Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme court, where do you see the term "civil rights" heading?

MM: One of things I learned in South Africa is that most of us have a finely calibrated sense of justice and the task of receiving a great education as you, no doubt, will see from Brandeis is how does one learn to keep one's eyes open rather than to close them and turn away? How do you learn not to avert your eyes when you pass a beggar on the street? It starts at that very simple level.... The history of the great civil rights movement has always taken what appears at the time to be small steps. I am so struck, for example, by the small anecdotes that are surfacing as we have been through recent memories of what happened in the Holocaust about somebody who remained alive because one family decided to take one child. Sixty years later, that one family with that one child contributed as much as the people who tried to organize on a greater scale and I always remember that to be such an important lesson to be taught over and over and over again. It's one person at a time.