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The Dissenter

The youngest member of the court that rocked the world, Martha Sosman, long viewed as a rising judicial star, adjusts to life after gay marriage.

When Martha Sosman was 12, she underwent bone fusion surgery to conquer severe scoliosis and was forced to lie in bed, in a full body cast, 24 hours a day for six months. To stanch the boredom, her mother set up a fish tank at her eye level and loaded it with a rainbow of tropical fish. Young, supine Martha stared, and she studied, and she learned. "The fish would identify if another fish was sick and then pick on it terribly," she says. "They are a vicious species. They sense vulnerability."

Sosman emerged from her recuperation with sharpened observational skills and a determination not to be vulnerable herself.

A girl of only modest athletic ability, she took to the ski slopes almost as soon as she was upright. "It was as though by getting back into skiing she could put the whole back operation behind her and say she was healed," says her younger sister Nancy Sosman. "And she did it."

That drive is what propelled her to where she sits today, at 53, the youngest -- and second-most junior -- member of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. But in terms of influence, the 5-foot-3-inch Sosman is a towering force.

"Martha is just smarter than anyone else on that court," says retired Superior Court judge Robert Barton. "And they're all very smart people."

In her fluid written opinions and her penetrating questioning of lawyers, Sosman projects an easy confidence. Since 1986, when then-US Attorney William Weld tapped her to head his civil division, people have predicted great things for Sosman. And she has always proved them right. But things got more complicated when the issue of gay marriage came along. In Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, Sosman chose not to sign on to Chief Justice Margaret Marshall's slim majority decision to legalize gay marriage. Instead she penned a stinging dissent and traded barbs with her boss in follow-up writings. Marshall wrote that Sosman's opinion "so clearly misses the point that further discussion appears to be useless." Sosman countered that Marshall's "dogmatic" writing "merely repeats the impassioned rhetoric" of gay-marriage advocates. For a court that has long prided itself on consensus and civility, these were fighting words.

But months after gay marriage became the law, it's hard to find signs of lingering tensions on the court. Sosman praises Marshall -- "She has a terrific array of skills that I don't" -- and makes it clear she will never want the court's top job.

With salt-and-pepper hair and blue-gray eyes, Sosman is a study in contrasts. She is an accomplished pianist who speaks in a patrician manner -- pronouncing "why" as though there were an "h" in front of it. Yet she is also a relaxed presence prone to bursts of high-pitched laughter. As a studious child in Concord public schools, she says she was used to being singled out as "one of the class brains." But she took her time finding a career, kicking around as a secretary after graduating from Middlebury College before enrolling at the University of Michigan Law School.

She comes across as fearless on the bench. When House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who exercises great authority over the judiciary's budget, would not fund the Clean Elections Law, Sosman ordered the state to sell off property. Yet she resists the trappings of robed life, driving a 1994 hatchback that makes the court officers shake their heads. She made a name for herself in feminist circles when she and four colleagues left the US attorney's office to start an all-woman law firm and when she later joined the board of Planned Parenthood. But off the bench, Sosman, who is single, is more of a homemaker sewing, quilting, hosting family Christmas gatherings, watching the Red Sox, and slaving over her flower and vegetable gardens. After her mother died in 1993, Sosman moved back in with her father. She cooks him dinner nightly but can get away with her favorite cuisine -- Indian -- only when the 84-year-old is away. Says her sister: "As soon as Dad clears the door, all the curries come out."

With such seemingly contradictory traits, Sosman is used to being misunderstood. "A quick review of the resume makes people leap to various conclusions about me," she says. "The five-woman firm, the involvement with Planned Parenthood, I think added to this image that I was going to be this crusading feminist liberal whatnot, which is certainly not what I am."

The assumptions became more personal after her dissent in the gay-marriage case. There were whispers about how she had betrayed her own cause. Then Bill O'Reilly thundered to his national Fox News Channel audience that the 4-3 gay-marriage decision was so wrong that "even the lesbian judge wouldn't go along with it."

One problem, Sosman says: She is not a lesbian. "It was an inaccurate story," says Sosman, the only female member of the SJC to have voted against gay marriage. "After all this time, that there would still be speculation and gossip about a prominent woman -- all stemming solely from the fact that she is single and never married -- is a disappointing commentary on how far we have yet to go."

Speculation about Sosman's personal life should pass. But will her role as The Dissenter in Goodridge continue to loom over her professional life? A Washington Post editorial said this about the decision legalizing gay marriage: "We think the court is right as a matter of policy. Whether it is correct in finding this new right in the Massachusetts constitution is less clear."

If other courts looking for precedents eventually conclude that the constitutional reasoning in Marshall's majority decision doesn't hold up, Sosman's dissent may find vindication. But if Massachusetts and the rest of the nation ultimately take gay marriage in stride, Sosman may find herself on the wrong side of history, even if she can make a strong argument that she was on the right side of the law.

Neil Swidey is a member of the Globe Magazine staff.

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