Meet Leila Kern

Leila Kern’s route to becoming a Superior Court judge was circuitous, demanding, and ultimately very satisfying. After graduating from Barnard, she earned a doctorate in experimental psychology from Columbia, and (with two young children) embarked on an academic career—first at Beaver (now Arcadia University), Florida State, and for eleven years, Northeastern. As chair of the admissions committee for Northeastern’s doctoral program in psychology, she came to the painful realization that grant funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and other sources was drying up. She couldn’t in good conscience recruit students if there were no jobs in their future. So she herself decided to change jobs. The career counselor she consulted interpreted her aptitude test results—“You test like a male lawyer”—there were no norms for women at the time.

She applied to Harvard, “40 is the noon of life,” was admitted early decision and thoroughly enjoyed law school. A summer internship at the US Attorney’s office led to a job at Hale and Dorr and two years later to an appointment as Assistant US Attorney in the US Attorney’s Office. There she loved working with “terrific colleagues” and a challenging range of cases, including medical malpractice and environmental issues. In 1989, Leila and four others formed the largest all-woman law firm in Massachusetts: Kern, Sosman, Hagerty, Roach, and Carpenter PC. This “litigation boutique,” a general litigation firm whose clients included the FDIC and the City of Boston, addressed serious cases such as employment discrimination and wrongful death. After three of its members, including Judge Kern, were appointed as Associate Justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court, the firm dissolved. Judge Kern presided over both civil and criminal cases, keeping the court in order and free of manipulation. During trials, she took copious notes during the 5-6 hours in the courtroom, and spent hours afterward reviewing the law. She loved the opportunity to educate the jurors by making the law understandable.

“I wanted to keep the jurors awake and interested.” Her detailed instructions to the jury on such matters as the differences between first- and second-degree murder, self-defense and criminal responsibility, often took an hour in complex cases. “I liked and respected the jurors and they appreciated that respect.” The toughest part (except for listening impassively to liars’ testimonies) came after the jury’s verdict.

“Being a judge is lonely because you have to make the decisions yourself. The jury’s verdict of guilty triggers various options and is emotionally the most difficult. How long should the sentence be – five years is very different from twenty. Will the prisoner be sent to a local jail, where they will be close to their family and have local support for re-entry programs? Or to a distant prison in Texas where they will have neither? Evidentiary issues are particularly difficult because you’re making these decisions under pressure and can’t afford to make mistakes. Errors can lead to reversals.” Over a dozen years on the bench, meticulous preparation, common sense, and a commitment to equal justice for all sustained Judge Kern, “I loved being a judge.”

By North Hill Resident Lynn Z. Bloom from the December 2022 issue of The Hilltop.