In March, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick ’82 nominated Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute clinical instructor Gloria Tan to a seat on the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. Tan came to CJI, which supervises third-year law students representing indigent criminal defendants in local district and juvenile courts, after serving as a public defender for the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Boston. When a spot opened up on CPCS’s Youth Advocacy Project, Tan switched to working on juvenile cases and has spent her career doing so ever since. Tan was sworn in on May 3rd.
How has your experience at Harvard prepared you for your judicial appointment?
At Harvard, I had the opportunity to supervise law students who represented indigent adult and juvenile clients charged with crimes, in addition to representing my own clients. Working in the clinic and with the students allowed me to reflect and work on many of the issues in the criminal justice system.
What is it like to work with students in the clinic?
The law students in CJI are some of the most talented, motivated, smart and thoughtful people. I learned as much from them as I hope they learned from me. They continually inspired me with their dedication and commitment to their clients and their questioning of the injustices that exist in the system. When you’ve been practicing for a while, it is sometimes easy to become accepting of how things are. The students helped me to keep a fresh perspective.
What sparked your interest in juvenile justice issues in particular?
There’s a saying that “children are our most valuable natural resource.” When kids are young, you often have a better chance of trying to help divert them from going down the wrong path. When you represent adults with very long records, you wonder if there could have been some intervention earlier that might have prevented them from recidivating.
How did you decide you wanted to be a judge?
People had encouraged me to apply for a judgeship. I thought long and hard about it, because I loved being an advocate and an attorney. I loved working with clients and representing them. But at the end of the day, the judge makes the final decision. As a judge, you have the opportunity to help people in a meaningful and powerful way.
It’s a very awesome responsibility, particularly as a juvenile judge when you make decisions about taking a kid out of a home or terminating parental rights. These are not easy decisions. But in the end, having the ability to make those important decisions that have such a huge impact on people’s lives is a way to help people in a different way.
People often become judges following careers as prosecutors or defending corporations. How do you think your background as a public defender will affect your perspective?
I’m going to give everyone a fair and impartial hearing, treat everyone with respect and apply the law to the facts that are before me. I have worked with my clients in a very close way, gone into their neighborhoods, spent time in their homes, spent time visiting them in jail. I’ve been to the Department of Youth Services and to jails and know what services young people will and won’t get there. People who have worked closely one-on-one with clients can understand what their lives are like in terms of kids who are coming from homes with substance abuse or domestic violence or clients who have learning disabilities or emotional problems. Seeing that firsthand will help inform my understanding of some of the issues that the children who appear in court face.
What kinds of cases do juvenile judges hear?
Delinquency cases and child welfare cases. If there are allegations that a parent is not fit and the child needs to be taken out of the home, those cases are heard in the juvenile court. Also, if a parent feels that their child needs services, they can file civil petitions. It’s a way for families to get services for their children without it becoming a criminal matter.
Do you have any concerns about how the economy has affected judicial resources?
The courts are, like many other entities, suffering from budget shortfalls. It affects everything from the top down. The last thing you want is for people who come before the court to be somehow shortchanged because of budget restraints. It is a real issue, and it forces you to think more creatively about using the resources that you do have and which cases really need to be prosecuted and whether they could benefit from mediation or some other alternative.
What are the unique challenges to handling juvenile cases?
It can be hard when you feel that there are families that are in real crisis or in real need and they’re coming to the courts for help and you’re limited in what you’re able to do to solve the problem. The most important thing is recognizing that you’re not necessarily going to be able to fix every problem that comes before you, but you can give everyone a fair hearing. The best you do is to treat everyone with respect and dignity so that they can leave knowing that they got a fair hearing and their day in court, even if it doesn’t go their way.