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Brian McGrory

We’re losing Gertner

US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner. US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner.
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / February 4, 2011

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She will be forever known as the judge who blasted the FBI for framing four men on murder and ordered the government to pay a record-setting $101.7 million award. But to understand Nancy Gertner, better to consider the case of a hotel housekeeper named Carmen who said she was driven from her job by a boss who thought she was too old.

When the hotel owners sought to dismiss Carmen’s age discrimination suit on the grounds it was just one manager making “stray’’ remarks, Gertner could have upheld or denied the motion in a single page. But that’s not her way.

Rather, she issued an intricately detailed 33-page decision that came down on the hotel like a collapsing roof, putting management on notice that there’s no excuse for calling Carmen or anyone else “an old shoe’’ or an “old hankie.’’ The defendant’s lawyer might want to think about settling this case, say, yesterday.

Carmen’s suit comes to mind after sitting with Gertner this week in her chambers in US District Court where, between picking at sushi with chopsticks, she revealed that she is about to resign from the federal bench. Nancy Gertner is retiring as a judge.

This is not a small deal. Actually, it’s a profoundly big one. Gertner is many things to many people. She is an unapologetic liberal. She is an unrepentant advocate. She is a civil libertarian of the highest order.

But she’s also something else, something greater than the sum of these various parts. She is a voraciously fair judge who uses her love of the law and the benefit of her sizable intellect to give refuge and recourse to those who need it. An entire region will miss that.

“The job of a judge is to individualize — to apply formal, cold law to individual human beings,’’ Gertner said as she rocked in her quiet chambers. “That’s not pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant.’’

There are conservatives who will glibly say good riddance to a judge they believe is far too liberal. But the funny part is, she is the exact person they would want on the bench when their parent, child, or spouse has been wronged by a government agency, insurance company, or corporate conglomerate. The underdogs don’t always win in Gertner’s courtroom, but they get a fair hearing.

US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf couldn’t be any more different from Gertner. He is a former prosecutor, she a defense litigator. He was appointed by President Reagan, she by President Clinton. But Wolf is an unabashed fan of Gertner. “She has a particularly passionate devotion to justice,’’ Wolf said. “We will be a grayer place without her.’’

Indeed, everything Gertner does is splashed with her trademark red, whether she’s keeping in touch with a gang member who showed a flash of potential in court, or blogging on the law for Slate, or lashing out at federal authorities for trying to deport an immigrant who had spent 19 years in jail on a wrongful conviction — just as his civil rights lawsuit was coming to trial.

She grew up the daughter of a linoleum store owner in lower Manhattan, her mother always wishing for her a government job. That dream, Gertner has joked, finally came true when she was sworn in as a judge 17 years ago. She got what she describes as a fancy education — Barnard and Yale Law — not as a legacy, but by dint of brains and hard work.

“My philosophy comes from not having been well off,’’ she said.

That philosophy involves a cordial courtroom, decisions rendered in plain English rather than legalese, and criminal sentences accompanied by elaborate written explanations that are widely hailed by other judges.

She’ll retire Sept. 1 at age 65, a few months after her memoir is published this spring. Next up: a professorship at Harvard Law School, other book ideas on the intricacies of being a judge, speeches. She suffers no lack of either ego or charm, and aims to be heard.

It’s the next act of a fascinating career, Nancy Gertner free of her robes.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.