Hanlon still learning from the job as first justice at Dorchester court

In 1990, Sydney Hanlon was ready to move up.

After 15 years as a prosecutor, handling hundreds of cases of rape and child molestation and tracking the use of money laundering and hundreds of pounds of cocaine, and persuading judges to see her side, Hanlon wanted to be a judge herself.

"I wanted to be the person who made the decisions," she says now with a smile.

That April, Hanlon was nominated by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis to Dorchester District Court as an associate justice and easily confirmed months later.

By the time the Washington Street courthouse re-opened in its new, expanded facility in January 1998, Hanlon was running the place, having taken over for Judge James Dolan as first justice of one of the busiest courts in the state in 1994.

"It's [been] a hard ten years," Hanlon says, remembering the first day the new courthouse opened, after New Year's Day.

The elevators didn't work and the cells didn't properly lock. "We were walking prisoners up and down the stairs," she says.

Nowadays, the cells could use a new coat of paint, and the lock-up isn't big enough, but it's a "good building," she says, dignified and attractive, formal but not in an intimidating way for those who go before her.

Being a judge is one of those jobs that looks easier than it actually is, she says, comparing it to working in a minefield.

"One legislator said years ago, 'These judges don't understand. When people say they're going to kill someone, they mean it,'" she says. "It's like, okay, come tell me which ones. Because lots of people say that. Some of them mean it, some of them don't. Many, many cases, if you look at them in hindsight, everyone would say, 'Well, of course.' But when you're been here as long as I've been, you'll see there's a lot of false positives. You don't have a crystal ball, you don't know what's going to happen."

Judges remain heavily scrutinized, with the case of Daniel Tavares and Superior Court Judge Kathe Tuttman as a recent high-profile example. Tuttman released the convicted killer over the summer, leading to Tavares taking off for Washington and allegedly killing a couple there.

Dorchester, in particular, handles a wide variety of cases, with one problem after another coming before the judges, ranging from domestic violence to firearms (before they wind their way to the "Gun Court"), all demanding quick decisions before the next case.

A judgeship wasn't on Hanlon's mind in her early days. A native of Kansas City, Missouri, she was born in 1950 and spent her teenage years in Baltimore after her father, who worked for the Social Security Administration, was transferred there.

She graduated from Brown University in 1972, having studied political science, history and economics, before heading to Harvard Law School.

"I didn't go into law school with the idea of being a trial lawyer. I thought I would work in politics and government; that's what I had always wanted to do," she says.

During her law school years, she volunteered for George McGovern's campaign for president, worked for Dukakis's campaign for governor and, before learning she passed her bar exam, was State Sen. Joseph Timilty's campaign director when he ran for mayor of Boston. (Kevin White would go on to beat him, garnering a third term.)

After hearing what a retired federal judge said about prosecuting, she decided to give it a try.

In 1975, she was hired by future U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, then a newly-appointed district attorney, as an assistant district attorney, taking charge of the state's first sexual assault unit in 1977.

"As soon as you establish a unit for things, they start getting reported, and we were almost immediately drowning in rape and child molestation cases," she remembers.

From there, she went to the U.S. Attorney's office, working with future governor William Weld and future FBI director Robert Mueller. (She had cases on the fringe of James "Whitey" Bulger's dealings, but was unaware he was an informant, she says. "We had cases that we thought we had good evidence and then nothing came of them, that seemed to be related to people related to that.")

Before her appointment to the bench, Hanlon, a Dorchester resident, worked for state Attorney General James Shannon, as head of his narcotics division.

"What I see is very small amounts compared to the amounts we saw at that time, that people are arrested with," she says. "I guess it gives me a context for what we see here, to a degree."

Mementos from her past lives hang on the wall of her second-floor courthouse office, including a plate with the Greek huntress Artemis, a yellowing poster of Bobby Kennedy, and a framed G.K. Chesterton quote about legal officials from her days in the Norfolk County District Attorney's office.

The quote warns lawyers, judges and police officers of getting too accustomed to the legal system, reading in part: "[T]hey do not see the prisoner in the dock; all they see is the usual man in the usual place. They do not see the awful court of judgment; they only see their own workshop."

"Not so much here, it seems to me," according to Hanlon, who points to the courthouse's literature program for men and women, which judges participate in, and a batterer's intervention program.

"You come to see people as individuals," she says. "Most of the people who come as defendants, and quite a larger number come as witnesses and victims, have so much going on in their lives.

She praises the court staffers as "extraordinary," stressing that they remain understaffed, with fewer probation officers than they had 15 years ago. Security is another issue, though she declines to go into more detail, reluctant to advertise the courthouse's weaknesses.

How much longer she'll keep doing her job is hard to say, Hanlon adds when asked.

Hanlon is a longtime Dorchester resident, and her mother stayed in a nursing home in the area for five years.

"We see enormous amounts of human misery, but I think most of the people who come here, or at least those who stay here, either staff, or whether it's bar advocates, whether it's DAs, or it's police officers, most of the people who come here really do want to help people and feel like this is a place where you can do that, sometimes by helping them help themselves and sometimes by keeping them from hurting other people, but often in more affirmative ways and I really like being part of that," she said. "I learn something every day."