US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf steps aside; will assume senior judge status

US District Court Chief Judge Mark L. Wolf, known for bringing a keen legal mind to bear in a number of high-profile cases, announced this morning that he will retire from full-time status on after 27 years.

Wolf said in a letter to President Obama that he will take senior status at the beginning of 2013, when his rotating tenure as chief judge for the Massachusetts district ends. US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris is slated to become the next chief.

Federal law allows judges to retire or take senior status after reaching a certain age and having served a set number of years on the bench. Wolf will be 66 when he steps down. By taking senior status, he can still preside over cases, though he can limit himself to a certain number and type, such as hearing criminal trials only.

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Portrait of US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf

More importantly, his departure from full-time status creates an open seat for the district, and Wolf has been vocal in recent years about getting newer, younger judges to represent the court.

“It has been a privilege to serve on this distinguished court for the past 27 years and as its Chief Judge since 2006,’’ Wolf wrote in his letter to the president.

“While I look forward to continuing to render substantial service as a Senior Judge, I am confident that my court and my community will be enriched by also having the undoubtedly younger additional judge who will be appointed to fill the vacancy created as a result of my becoming a Senior Judge,’’ he wrote.

Wolf’s departure from the bench, and the end of his tenure as chief judge, could temper a significant voice for the court. As chief judge, he sets the agenda for the court, overseeing budget priorities and policies.

A longtime supporter of charitable efforts and community organizing, Wolf has been instrumental in the development of seminars for lawyers and programs for inner-city schools. He was involved in the creation of the Judge David S. Nelson Fellowship, named in honor of a late judge, which introduces inner-city high school students to the law and the courts.

He remains in contact with many of the graduates: One of them spoke at the unveiling of his portrait two years ago in federal court in Boston, not long after graduating from Northeastern Law School.

Wolf has also been at the center of some of the most significant cases in recent years, and has issued decisions that, though he bases them on the law, often fall at odds with public opinion.

He stirred controversy when he ruled last month that the state must pay for convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek’s sex change operation, after he found that the procedure was medically needed and the inmate’s last option to treat her gender identity disorder.

He oversaw the conviction last year of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, in one of the biggest political corruption trials in the state’s history.

Wolf oversaw Mafia trials including the prosecution of Raymond Patriarca Jr., and he reduced a prison sentence for Vincent Ferrara after finding wrongdoing by prosecutors.

He is perhaps best known for the hearings in the late 1990s that uncovered the FBI’s corrupt relationship with informants Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and James “Whitey” Bulger.

His rulings have sometimes found him at odds with what appeared to be his own beliefs. In 1995, for example, he ruled that the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council had the right under the First Amendment to exclude gays from the St. Patrick’s Day parade, going against previous state court decisions. His view was ultimately upheld by a unanimous US Supreme Court.

At the unveiling of his portrait two years ago, many of the judge’s colleagues and acquaintances who spoke publicly – one of them was the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma – noted his affinity for poetry.

Indeed, the judge has said before in interviews that, in making critical decisions that affect people’s lives, he often finds comfort in poetry.

“I think that poetry, to a certain extent, redresses the damage done in that process. It has a certain healing quality for me,” Wolf said.

In one example, he invoked poetry in becoming the first judge in more than a half century to sentence a defendant to death in Massachusetts, in the trial of serial killer Gary Lee Sampson.

Quoting the poet W.H. Auden, he told Sampson, “You personify the wisdom of the poets’ insight that ‘Evil is unspectacular and always human … And shares our bed and eats at our own table.’”

“We live in a nation of decent people who have had as their ideal a reverence for life,” Wolf told Sampson, adding, “By committing horrific crimes that virtually compelled decent people in this community to condemn you to die, you have diminished, if not degraded, us all.”

Wolf handed out the death sentence in 2003. Earlier this year, he vacated the decision after finding that a juror who decided for the death sentence withheld information about her history with crime and law enforcement, tainting the integrity of the jury process, and he ordered a new trial. Federal prosecutors appealed that decision.

Appointed by President Reagan in 1985, Wolf has served as chief judge since 2006. He is also a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States and chair of its Committee of District Judges. He also held other positions with the Judicial Conference.

Before becoming a judge, Wolf served in the Department of Justice as a special assistant to the deputy attorney general, as well as assistant to the attorney general, and as deputy US attorney for the district of Massachusetts. He was chief of the public corruption unit part of that time.

A graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, Wolf also served for some time in private practice. He has taught at local colleges and universities, and has given lectures in countries throughout the world on combating corruption and on human rights issues.

He and his wife, Lynne, have two adult children, Jonathan and Matt.