|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
Are there people in your family who are also
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
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
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
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
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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