The Hampden County Superior Courthouse in Springfield, Massachusetts, will officially be renamed in honor of Roderick L. Ireland on Friday afternoon in a public ceremony at the city’s Symphony Hall.
“It’s very humbling and almost incomprehensible to have a building named after me when I’m still alive,” said Ireland, a Northeastern alumnus, faculty member, and former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. “I’m almost at a loss for words about the whole thing.”
In 2015, then state Rep. Benjamin Swan of Springfield filed a bill proposing the re-naming of the Hampden County Superior Courthouse to the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse. In January, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the bill into law, aiming to honor Ireland for “his many contributions to the judiciary, the bar, and the people of the city of Springfield.”
Ireland’s judicial legacy will be front and center at Friday’s event, which will include remarks from Baker, Swan, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, BA’72. But the judicial giant is quick to point out that this high honor would never have come to fruition without the support of his family, friends, and mentors.
“I look back on my career and there are so many points along the way where someone helped me or gave me advice,” Ireland said on Thursday, “and without that help I never would have moved on to the next level.”
A judicial giant
Ireland, a Springfield native who retired from the bench in July 2014, was the first African American on the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. During his tenure as a member of the state’s judiciary, he led efforts on a number of noteworthy legal decisions, worked to improve the state’s court system, and pushed for diversifying the judiciary while reforming the state’s probation department.
Ireland ruled it unconstitutional for teenagers facing life sentences to not have the possibility of parole, which changed the way juvenile cases are handled statewide. He is also one of four justices who voted in favor of same-sex marriage in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health—a landmark 2003 case representing the nation’s first unqualified court victory in the fight for marriage equality.
Ireland began his legal career in 1969 as a Neighborhood Legal Services attorney. In 1977, Gov. Michael Dukakis—now Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern—appointed him as judge of the state’s Juvenile Court, where he served for 13 years. He was first appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997 by Gov. William Weld and became the senior associate justice in 2008. In 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick appointed him as the state’s first African American chief justice.
‘I love Northeastern’
Ireland joined Northeastern’s faculty in 1978 as a part-time instructor, teaching courses in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the School of Law, and the Law, Policy, and Society program. He was appointed Distinguished Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice in 2014, when he joined the faculty full time.
“I love Northeastern,” said Ireland, who is currently teaching a “Criminal Due Process” course. “Our students, who come from around the world, are so smart and so motivated, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me.”
Ireland, PhD’98, received his bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University, his Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School, his Master of Laws from Harvard Law School, and his doctorate in law, policy, and society from Northeastern. His Northeastern degree, he said, “broadened my horizons and helped me in my career.”
His advice to aspiring lawyers is pretty straightforward: “You have to be ethical, you have to obey all of the rules, and you have to put the work in,” he said. “You have to know what your long term goals are and you have to have short term plans to accomplish those goals.”
For Ireland, mission accomplished.