A Conversation with Patti B. Saris ’76

A trailblazing career leads Saris to cutting-edge science and criminal justice reform

Credit: Tony Loung

On Jan. 1, 2013, Patti B. Saris ’76 became the first woman to be named chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, breaking another barrier to women in the law. In her years as chief, Saris has deftly tackled cases at the far reaches of technological innovation, intellectual property, and emerging science and, more recently, immigration and deportation cases amid fiery public debate. Every day that she puts on her robe, Saris continues the pursuit of truth that led her to the law in the first place.

You’re a Boston native.

I grew up in West Roxbury, only 15 minutes from Harvard. When I arrived at Radcliffe College, it was as if I’d moved a thousand miles away, because the world was so different. It really emboldened me and taught me how to be a leader.

You were a dedicated student reporter on The Harvard Crimson. What made you switch gears and go to law school?

I worked on the Crimson during a very contentious time, as the Vietnam War was being debated, the civil rights movement and the women’s movement intensified, and students were challenging existing norms. I reported on the famous strikes but I also covered Harvard Law School. I went over there as students were protesting the fact that there were so few women enrolled, and I met some of the women who were asserting their rights. I loved the edginess of that, of not accepting the status quo. I decided to go to law school.

After law school, you packed a lot of work experience into a dozen years: You were the first woman to clerk for Justice Robert Braucher [’39] of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; next you joined the Foley Hoag firm. When Senator Ted Kennedy became chairman of the Judiciary Committee, you moved to Washington to serve on his staff, and subsequently you became an assistant U.S. attorney. What made you decide to try for a judgeship?

When a magistrate judge position opened up [in 1986], I was interested but thought I wouldn’t get it—too young, at 35, too inexperienced. In the early ’80s an influx of new women members of the bar had formed the Women’s Bar Association, which I was very active in. A group of its members came to me and said, “The federal bench is primarily male, and we need more women. You’ve got a great academic background, with Radcliffe College and the law school. Why don’t you apply?” So I did.

What experiences helped you most as a new judge?

I was chief of the Civil Division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and I had experience in civil litigation. I’d worked on some sentencing and bail issues with Senator Kennedy. I did have a steeper learning curve on the criminal side of the equation, but back in law school, I was a student district attorney at Harvard Law School and I tried more than 10 cases in the district court while working with the Middlesex DA’s office. I got fabulous trial experience and strong mentorship. These law school experiences in a court system are immeasurable in value, giving you a store of information you keep forever; they were hugely impactful for me.

In 1989, you became an associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, and five years later, you joined the federal bench. What kinds of cases do you find especially challenging right now?

I’ve done a lot of patent cases—we’ve a big patent court up here in Boston—that involve complex science and technology, particularly in this region where we’ve got MIT and Harvard and all the major universities and hospitals and drug companies. The trial judge has to double down and learn not only what the facts are, but also the science underpinning the parties’ positions to know whether or not there’s infringement. The issues of science come up in criminal cases, too—in child pornography cases in terms of how does one know the defendant was accessing this particular server, or in commercial disputes over whether or not someone has taken a trade secret. I think cases involving cutting-edge science are something this court needs to be top-notch in.

You are part of the “second wave” of women at HLS—your class was only about 15 percent female—and you credit the women’s movement as a powerful influence in your life. Can you give an example?

When I worked with Senator Kennedy, I was present when he met with soon-to-be Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. I know the senator wanted me to meet this person who was really at the top of her profession. I also watched the Senate confirmation hearing of Rya Zobel ’56, one of Harvard Law School’s first female grads, who was just wonderful. She became the first female federal district court judge in Massachusetts.

You were on campus this fall for Celebration 65. As a panelist on “Reforming Criminal Justice in America,” you listed reforms you want most. Number one: to end all mandatory minimums in sentencing. Why is that your top priority?

I was chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission for six years. Criminal justice, particularly in the area of sentencing, has become a passion of mine. I think too many people are being incarcerated for too long in this country. In the 1980s and ’90s, we freaked out as a society about rising crime rates and imposed harsh penalties. Now we’re coming to understand we do need to talk about rehabilitation, about drug courts, about collateral consequences of felony convictions. And there is growing consensus on both sides of the aisle that some of the mandatory minimums are too harsh. The Sentencing Commission unanimously made certain retroactive changes to drug-related penalties that made 40,000 people eligible for lower penalties. That was such a huge moment in the area of criminal justice reform. We came very close to a big fix, through legislation in Congress, but it didn’t happen. Elections matter. But momentum still exists to do more. I am hopeful. [Since this interview was conducted, the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill, was signed into law.]

Education also made your list of crucial reforms. Why?

A lot of solutions in criminal justice can only address the tip of the iceberg. We must provide poor people with better opportunities. I’m on the board of various philanthropies. One I recently rolled off, after over a decade, is a place called Bottom Line that helps inner-city kids get access to college and then helps them graduate. That work was extremely important to me. I was also involved in starting the Nelson Fellows program here at the courthouse that brings in inner-city kids (high school level) with each judge taking a different student to mentor. I’ve been doing that for 20 years now. And I’m on the board of a charter school in Dorchester.

You have a lot of interests you are passionate about. Have we skipped any?

My family! My husband, Arthur Segel, is a professor teaching in real estate at Harvard Business School. I’m the proud mother of four children and five grandchildren.

Didn’t one of your kids come pretty close to being born in a courtroom?

My daughter. I went into labor when I was giving my very first circuit court argument. Work-life balance hasn’t become easier over the years, though my kids have taken different approaches. So it’s a never-ending discussion. My daughter once said to me, “I was always so proud you were a judge, but couldn’t you have spent more time with me?” It’s always a tension, and now she’s trying to balance it differently. I do think women today have more freedom to try to strike a balance their own way.

You’ve served on the Harvard Board of Overseers (as president in 2006), been a member of the Visiting Committee to Harvard Law School, and you’re on the Dean’s
Advisory Board. What motivates you to be such a heavy-hitter volunteer?

I’m a strong believer in Harvard’s basic model: Veritas. In higher education generally but at Harvard in particular, it’s extremely important for the academy to be strong and to speak truth, whether it’s in science or on legal principles. Both college and law school gave me a fabulous education in how to seek out the truth.