Judge Fredric Rutberg reflects on two decades on the bench
PITTSFIELD - Sitting behind his desk recently, Judge Fredric D. Rutberg managed to look judicial even without the trappings of his office. In his voice, which fluctuates from whisper quiet to emphatic, he recounted his time on the bench on the eve of his retirement, set for Friday.
"Every day I get to put that robe on is a good day," he said, pointing toward his official raiments hanging nearby.
He'd come a long way, both geographically and in less concrete ways, from his childhood in Philadelphia and his time as a young, idealistic defense lawyer working in the then-rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Spanish Harlem in Manhattan.
In 1974, after having lived in the Berkshires for a few years, he "hung out his shingle" in Stockbridge and began practicing law here, mainly handling civil cases.
Rutberg had always considered the idea of being a judge, but it wasn't until 1994 that he got the opportunity.
"I never thought about how you become a judge, but it was always in the back of my mind. I got a chance to throw my hat in the ring and was fabulously lucky," he said.
He was nominated by Gov. William F. Weld as the Associate Justice of the Southern Berkshire Court and appointed to the position in March 1994.
He said the idea of being a judge and the reality were two very different things.
"It was hugely eye-opening and different. Everyone is looking at you. I've grown into it I guess. It was a lot more difficult to be a judge than I anticipated it would be. I can't say I've loved every minute of it, but almost. It's been very good to me," he said.
Judge Alfred A. Barbalunga, who retired in 2006, once told Rutberg that being a judge is "a front row seat to life's drama."
Rutberg paused briefly in his story, smiled, continued. "I didn't appreciate how much drama, how large. You're right there in people's lives. I know I've been incredibly lucky."
Over the years, he's often thought "there but for the grace of God go I" when presiding over tough cases.
"You see so many situations, cases where you see what people have been dealt. Sometimes you're just amazed that they can keep going. You come up against that (and) realize just how lucky I am as a human being. I'm sure I knew it intellectually, but I'm much more conscious of it now," he said.
The hardest part of being a judge is sentencing people, according to Rutberg.
"I get no pleasure sending someone to jail," he said.
One of the many changes he's seen on his more than 20 years on the bench is the sharp rise in heroin-related cases that come before him. "There's so much more heroin than I would see in the beginning. It seems to taint so much of what we do," he said. "Our business was much more alcohol-driven 20 years ago than it is today."
Even crack cocaine didn't "bore into the fabric of the community as heroin seems to have."
In 2007, Rutberg was named Presiding Justice of the Pittsfield District Court and in 2013, the Presiding Justice for the Southern Berkshire District Court.
According to Kate Gleason, the office manager of the Clerk's Office in Central Berkshire District Court, who previously served as Rutberg's judicial secretary, the judge was always down to earth, funny and personable. His door was always open and he always backed up his staff.
Gleason said he was always approachable if you had work questions, which often involve ins-and-outs of the law.
"He was a good teacher," she said. "He wanted you to understand the law behind the question. Everybody's going to miss him."
David J. "Ziggy" Kearns, an assistant clerk-magistrate in Central Berkshire District Court, shared a similar sentiment.
"He was a good judge. We're going to miss him," he said.
Kearns said Rutberg always "took everything that came his way" and "always did what he thought was right. I commend him for that."
He will also be missed by many of the people who practiced their craft before his bench.
"My test of a good judge is this: If I leave the courtroom after having argued before a judge, do I feel — win, lose or draw — like a lawyer? Judge Rutberg always made me feel like a lawyer," said attorney Leonard H. Cohen.
In Massachusetts, judges have a mandatory retirement age of 70. Rutberg, who turns 70 in November, is leaving a bit earlier than he has to mostly so he can "go out on my own number. Some part of me doesn't want to leave when they tell me I have to. I get to go on my terms."
He said there are positive aspects of mandatory retirement, since it "gives you the opportunity to have another career when you think you still have your fastball" and "brings on a new generation" of judges.
Another positive for Rutberg in regard to stepping off the bench is being able to give voice to his opinions once again.
"I get my First Amendment freedoms back. That's big. I certainly intend to exercise them. It's paradoxical. As a judge, on that bench you can say anything you want, pretty much. No one ever tells you to shut up, but on the other hand, we (judges), especially in Massachusetts, are really constrained by what we can talk about, which is in part a by-product of being appointed, not elected," he said.
His first order of business upon retirement is taking a long vacation to "somewhere exotic and wonderful." After that he "has some things" he's "working on."
Leaning back slightly in his chair, Rutberg paused.
"I'm obviously going to miss the people and this great opportunity," he said a bit wistfully.
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