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Desi Making Waves

By Elaine G. Flores

A Matter of Honor: District Court Justice Sabita Singh Makes History on the Bench

Her recent appointment as Associate Justice of the Massachusetts District Court makes Sabita Singh, 41, the first Asian American appointed to the state bench. Indian-born Singh, who immigrated to the United States as a child, has made judicial history and has become a superstar in her home village. Singh chatted with ABCDlady about the milestone.

What prompted you to pick a career in law?
I think it was a general notion of wanting to do social justice. Back when I was in college, I had this strong sense of right and wrong, weak people and strong people and wanting to help people who couldn’t help themselves.

Are there people in your family who are also in law?
Nobody in my immediate family. My grandfather, though, was a lawyer and was the city solicitor for his town. I think growing up, I didn’t really know what he did in life….When I was a teenager and our grandfather visited for the summer and he asked us kids what we wanted to do when we grew up, I don’t think I was thinking of the law at that point. I think he was advising that it wasn’t a good thing to go into. That’s something a lot of lawyers say here…they might enjoy the field for themselves, but they wouldn’t recommend it for other people.

Justice Singh at Speaking Engagement at Calcutta Chamber of Commerce in January 2006

You prosecuted some very high-profile cases [such as the Eddie Brien juvenile murder case and the nanny Louise Woodward baby murder case]. How do you feel about being something of a celebrity?
I think I was really fortunate to have been able to be involved in those things…I like the media exposure of the legal system in general. I think it can be really educational. I like that you can have conversations with people who have nothing to do with the system, yet they seem pretty educated on it.

What would you consider your career high point?
That’s very hard for me to say. I’ve done a lot of different things. A lot of high points in the law have to do with legal issues that might not get a lot of air play or publicity, but they’re significant.

Such as?
In the state of Massachusetts, there were laws relating to victims of sexual assault. When there is a victim of sexual assault, defense counsel usually asks for psychiatric records, counseling lessons, rape-counseling records, those sorts of things. The law was sort of in flux as to when defense counsel was entitled to that information and to what extent. I had a case that went to the State Supreme Court on that issue and that case came down with the principles. The Supreme Judicial Court used that case to establish principles and it was done with a balancing—and that’s what we were advocating for. Of course, it’s the defendant’s liberty at stake, so he’s got a very strong interest in getting the information. At the same time there are these privacy issues.

Was there a career low point or a point when you felt discouraged?
I think each time I started a new venture. I was a state prosecutor for about seven years and from there I went to a big law firm practice. At that time, it was a very unusual move. I came in as a lateral hire, but after seven years in a DA’s office, you are one of the most senior people in the office, and I was regarded as the go-to person on all kinds of issues. I was included in top levels on all kinds of policy planning and everything. Then I come to this big law firm and I have to start from the very beginning. There was a very severe hierarchy….The same thing happened when I started at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I was a more senior lawyer, but I didn’t do any work on the federal criminal side before, so I had to learn the whole federal system and the federal rules of evidence and start all over again. And each time, I think that’s when I doubted if it was the right decision to make that career change.

What types of cases are closest to your heart?
One of the reasons I love the law is because of the stories, the stories about people, stories about what motivates people to do what they do and stories about people reforming themselves. I think some of the cases that touched me the deepest were cases involving families touched by violence and seeing how they got through it and how the system helped them or hindered them.

In your family’s village, in Bihar, you have been described as an icon. How cool is that?
So overstated. [laughs] There’s been a lot of hype.

Justice Singh and Mom, Sita Singh on the Day of her Swearing in Ceremony

What do you say when people say that?
I’ve been involved with the South Asian Bar here and I see the really, really top-notch talent that we have just in the legal community. I know, of course, that in the South Asian community, we have wonderful people in journalism. That warms my heart, particularly every time I see a South Asian byline or broadcast journalist. [We have wonderful people in] all kinds of fields, but in a field that I know about, the legal field, there is just fantastic talent out there, people doing amazing things at a very young age or being educated in their home country and coming here and doing great things for the community here. I see all these wonderful people, and it’s hard to say that what I’ve done, my career, can compare.

I understand that there are plans for a village celebration in Bihar.
Do you know Bihar?

Oh, ho, ho! I was told that news cameras descended on my village and started randomly interviewing people. And I’m telling you, it’s a village village. It’s very small.

What do you think the celebration will be like?
I was back in India in January. I was being recognized for an award in Delhi. And there was a wedding, there’s always a wedding. Every time you go to India, there’s a family wedding. When people found out I was coming, they started booking speaking engagements for me. Just outside of my village, the nearest town is Chapra. That’s where my grandfather had been the city solicitor. I’d just been appointed as an Assistant U.S. Attorney at that point, so the Chapra Bar Association invited me to speak about my work. I said sure. My dad said, “Don’t worry, it’s a small gathering.” And I figure, judging how bar association activities are here, there aren’t going to be many people. So then just before I went, they ended up opening it up to the public, they published a notice that I was coming to speak. So then we’re going in the jeep and they drive us in, and I see these hoards of people, all men, dressed in suits. We were driving through these crowds, and it dawned on me that these crowds were there for me. They had gotten this banner together that said something like, “Welcome Sabita Singh Grandbaby of the Bar.” It was just amazing. What was disappointing was, after all this time over here, I’ve lost touch with my Hindi. I can understand it and watch the movies and listen to the songs and understand family members, but I really cannot speak it very well. I got up and said something in Hindi like, “I’m sorry that I don’t speak Hindi well, but my dad will talk to you.” I had that kind of reception whenever I was just coming for a speaking engagement.

And you go there once a year in the winter with your mom and your dad.
We try to. And my brothers and sisters, whoever is going.

You have a high-pressure career and a great sense of humor, how do you relax? Do you have guilty pleasures? Lifetime?
I’m one of these people who enjoy my work so much and I get nervous when I don’t have much to do. All through my career I was going into the office every weekend, it was really because I wanted to keep on top of everything. I wanted to do one case, so I could do another and another and another. When I was a state prosecutor, I never wanted to leave the town because if you were on the ground when a good homicide came in, then you got it. I remember going away one time for a ski trip.

Do you ski?
No. [laughs] I just go for the hot chocolate. It was a three-day weekend, and when I came back, there was a great, great as in the sense that it was a very interesting, story. I think it was a murder/suicide at Harvard or something. It sounds kind of inappropriate to say that it’s a great homicide. But my work has always been that way; it was very satisfying no matter what I was doing. Hmm, I don’t have anything to offer on guilty pleasures.

From left to right: Singh's Mom (Sita Singh), Justice Singh, Singh's Niece (Sanjana Maheshwari) and Singh's Dad (Shiwendra Prasad Singh)

Any hobbies or secret talents that don’t have to do with the law?
You know, this is like every application that I’ve done; they ask you about this: hobbies, interests, skills. That’s when I feel like, “Oh, my God, I’m a one-dimensional person.” I like to run. That’s kind of what I do to relieve stress. I love to read.

What kind of books?
I’m usually reading three or four different things at a time. I’ll make sure that there’s some South Asian book. I’ve always got my eye out for new South Asian authors. And then some sort of a self-help book and then something from the best-sellers list.

See? That’s a good answer.

Elaine G. Flores is a feature writer for Soap Opera Digest, columnist for the St. Louis American and freelance writer. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and lives in New York.

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