After 3 decades on the bench, Judge Daniel Ford look back on career ahead of retirement
PITTSFIELD — It's fitting, perhaps, that Judge Daniel Ford served his last weeks at work presiding over Superior Court cases in Berkshire County.
It was nearly 30 years ago, June 22, 1989, that the Pittsfield native was sworn in by former Gov. Michael Dukakis in the Berkshire Superior Courtroom.
Ford said a large crowd attended the ceremony, despite the early summer heat and the lack of air conditioning.
"It was sweltering, it was awful, but we got through it," Ford said.
Since then, Ford has presided in Superior Courts in every county in Massachusetts, but his time on the bench officially comes to a close on Aug. 8, when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70.
He wrapped up his duties presiding over cases in Superior Court in early May. Between now and his retirement date, he will serve on the state's Appellate Court and will work in Greenfield, tending to any remaining matters, such as completing any outstanding paperwork and written decisions.
Ford said, after he's done with all of that, he'll avail himself of whatever vacation time he has left on the books until he's no longer on the state payroll.
His plans at the end of his career are similar to those at the beginning, in the sense that he doesn't really have any.
Ford graduated from Notre Dame in 1971 with a degree in finance and earned his Juris Doctor degree from Boston College Law School in 1974.
"I didn't really have a plan; I was originally a math major," he said. "I thought I might wind up practicing corporate law on Wall Street, or something like that. ... I really didn't have a clear vision."
Ford was in private practice from 1975 until 1979 when he joined the Berkshire District Attorney's Office as a prosecutor until 1987, after which he briefly returned to private practice before being appointed to the bench. Among the cases on which he worked as an assistant district attorney was that of Bernard Baran Jr., whose 1985 conviction on child molestation charges was overturned in 2006. Baran's appellate attorney convinced a judge to throw out the Berkshire Superior Court verdict amid evidence that Baran's trial lawyer failed to discover and use videotapes of investigators' interviews with the alleged victims, some of whom said they had been molested by someone other than Baran, while others at times denied ever having been molested at all. In a telephone call this week, Ford declined to offer comment on that case.
Ford said the experience of working as a prosecutor and a private attorney was invaluable and provided the opportunity to work on all manner of cases, including criminal defense, civil litigation, divorce, bankruptcies and adoptions.
"I just think It's so important to have a varied background when a judge comes on the court," he said. "It puts you in really good stead when you're a Superior Court judge, because we see everything."
It's becoming more rare to see attorneys have the opportunity to do that kind of varied work, Ford said.
"Unfortunately, the practice of law has changed. It's become a lot more specialized. ... You don't see a lot of people who do both. People tend to go into a law firm and they get pigeon-holed in one type of law — civil, criminal, whatever."
But, it was those experiences, arguing cases in the Superior Court, from which Ford developed a great respect for the justices before whom he appeared. It eventually led him to pursue that position.
"I wanted to be like them," he said. "I thought it would be a career that would be fulfilling, satisfying, rewarding but would also do some good for the community."
"I remember being so thrilled when I got the call that day from the governor, telling me, `I'm going to nominate you,'" Ford said. "It was like being on cloud nine."
Ford presided over some of the most high-profile cases in recent memory, including those of convicted child killer Lewis Lent; Wayne Lo, who carried out the 1992 mass shooting at Bard's College at Simon's Rock; and Alfred Gaynor, who was convicted in 2000 of murdering four women and later confessed to murdering at least five more.
Being mired in the sometimes gruesome details of cases can take a toll, but Ford said the job requires one to be able to compartmentalize such things.
"I don't really know how to explain how I do it, but I know I have to do it," he said. "If you took everything home with you, you'd go crazy, and there's always the next case coming along."
Ford said, from his experience, the ability to listen and to not prejudge matters are among the two hallmarks of what makes a good judge.
"You have to have an open mind. You have to be willing to reconsider any feelings you might have at the beginning of a case and even when the case is over," Ford said.
Ford said there have been instances in which he's begun to write a decision and, in doing so, realized he might be wrong and changed his mind part-way through.
"If a judge goes into it with a closed mind, that's a recipe for disaster."
Having presided over cases throughout the state, Ford said there are things that tend to be unique about conducting trial business in Berkshire County.
"People here in Berkshire County, by and large, put more effort into the trials than in some other counties," Ford said.
He said from his perspective, it appears easier to get witnesses in criminal trials to cooperate and come to court to testify in Berkshire County than in Hampden County, for example.
Ford said the hobbling of prosecutors' cases because of the lack of witness cooperation tends to happen more often in Hampden County, especially cases which originate out of the greater Springfield area.
"I'm not criticizing Hampden, "Ford said. "They do a good job, but it's harder for them to try a case with a lot of witnesses than it is here."
"Here, there appears to be no problem, and the prosecutors do a very thorough job of filling in all the gaps," Ford said.
Ford also had praise for the Berkshire attorneys with whom he's worked over the years.
"It's a very collegial bar. It's really a pleasure to sit here, just because of that," he said. "And a very good bar. I think we stack up per capita, with any bar association in the commonwealth."
"There are some very good lawyers here," he said.
Some members of the Berkshire bar were equally complimentary toward Ford. Former Berkshire District Attorney and First Assistant DA Paul Caccaviello described Ford as "an excellent jurist" and a "scholar of the law."
"Judge Ford will be missed by those that practiced before him," Caccaviello said in a statement. "One could always count on decisions that were well-principled, well thought out and if necessary, well-written. I wish him the best in retirement."
Nathaniel Green, attorney-in-charge of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, echoed those sentiments.
"What impressed me whenever I have appeared before Judge Ford, in 1989 through as recently as April 2019, is his exceptional knowledge and understanding of the law," Green said in a statement. "Judge Ford knew the law and was always on top of changes in the law. I wish him the best for his much deserved retirement."
Pittsfield attorney Timothy Shugrue successfully defended a client in the last criminal trial over which Ford presided.
"He's a brilliant man. I always found it a pleasure to try in front of him because he knew the law, he ran a tight ship," Shugrue said. "It's going to be a big loss having him off the bench. ... He's a tough judge, but a good judge."
Ford said one of his hopes is that everyone who appeared before him felt they received his best efforts in their cases, whether it was a high-profile murder case or a private civil matter of interest only to those directly involved.
"That is, to me, something that I take pride in. That I give it my best in every case, no matter how minor it may seem."
Also among his hopes is that people will say they were treated with respect in his courtroom.
"I'm the first to admit I haven't always lived up to that," Ford said. "I know there were times I've been a little testy with people. I would hope they would understand it wasn't personal, that it was something that I felt had to be addressed.
"I expect people to be prepared, I expect people to know the law when they make an argument, and if they're not prepared or they have not researched the law properly, they may hear about it from me," he said.
"It was never personal, and there may have been times when I overreacted," he said. "But I would hope in most cases, people feel as though they got a fair hearing, that the judge heard them out, listened to what they had to say, considered it and, if I rejected it, I told them why."
Looking back, Ford said, with very few exceptions, there hadn't been a day he didn't enjoy the work of being a judge, but he is looking forward to what's next, despite the lack of an immediate plan.
"Maybe I'll just love being retired," he said.
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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