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Marshall Sought Justice In Apartheid South Africa

Chief Justice Margaret Marshall heard  arguments in Supreme Judicial Court in this May 2005 file photo. (Via AP)

Chief Justice Margaret Marshall heard arguments in Supreme Judicial Court in this May 2005 file photo. (AP)

Margaret Marshall’s judicial legacy may be defined by her 2003 decision in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, which legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts and changed America.

But Marshall sighs and shakes her head at the notion. She is proud of hundreds of other cases — covering everything from clean-elections laws to first-degree murders to utilities regulation — that she has overseen since her ascension to chief justice of the state’s high court in 1999.

Gov. William Weld put her on the Supreme Judicial Court bench as an associate justice in 1996. She had no previous experience as judge. In fact, as a young woman, Marshall never considered the law as a career. She had come to the United States in 1968 from her native South Africa to study art history — following the anti-apartheid activism of her youth.

Immigrating to the United States from apartheid South Africa was like “tasting freedom for the first time,” Marshall says.

“I think what I discovered in the law in the United States,” Marshall said, “was that the law gives expression to some of the longings and the leanings and the values that I had come to respect in South Africa.”

South Africa in the 1940s and ‘50s was bitterly divided, Marshall said, and it was impossible to really understand the plight of black South Africans. Apartheid society was all she knew until coming to Delaware in 1962 for a high-school exchange program.

“I have described it in other circumstances as tasting freedom for the first time,” Marshall said.

“All of a sudden I saw people on television criticizing the president. And I was at a school where I could read anything that I wanted to read. I had school teachers that actually encouraged us to express our ideas, rather than learning by rote.”

As a student, Marshall saw the American civil-rights movement firsthand. When she returned to South Africa, she became active in her country’s own racial revolution. It was Marshall’s first foray into what she saw as protecting human rights, but her ruling in the Goodridge case showed it wasn’t her last.

Margaret Marshall is sworn in as the SJC chief justice by then-Gov. Paul Cellucci in 1999. (AP)

Her critics have derided Marshall as an activist judge. Her admirers call her a visionary.

Marshall eventually immigrated to the United States, both to attend graduate school at Harvard and to escape persecution. But before she left South Africa for good, Marshall saw a glimpse of hope in Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who traveled there to lend his support to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Kennedy’s speeches were moving, Marshall said, and she traveled with him and his entourage as he toured the divided country.

“I remember the words as if they were yesterday,” Marshall said, “not always the particular words, but it was so powerful. Because it’s very difficult to describe what you feel when you are locked into an oppressive system that feels as if it can never move and somebody from the outside comes and says to you ‘what you are doing is good and noble and is part of the march of human history.’ ”

  • Thursday on Radio Boston: Part 2 of our interview with Margaret Marshall

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