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Former Governors Paul Celucci and William Weld applaud Martha Sosman during her swearing-in ceremony to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court at the House Chambers in September of 2000.
Former Governors Paul Celucci and William Weld applaud Martha Sosman during her swearing-in ceremony to be Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court at the House Chambers in September of 2000. (Globe Photo)

Martha B. Sosman, who voted against gay marriage, dead at 56

BOSTON --Martha B. Sosman, one of three Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judges who voted against the landmark decision legalizing gay marriage in the state, has died, the court said Sunday. She was 56.

Family members said the cause of death Saturday night was respiratory failure, according to a statement from Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall.

Sosman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and had been participating in some cases by watching Webcasts of oral arguments, reading legal briefs at home and talking with other justices and law clerks by telephone. She was treated by chemotherapy and radiation, but still the suddenness of her death took many by surprise.

Marshall told The Associated Press on Sunday that Sosman awed attorneys and judges in Massachusetts with her incisive questioning from the bench -- inquiries that were often difficult, but always "penetrated the heart of the matter."

"I would say she had a formidable intellect," Marshall said. "Equally important, she had an unusual ability to hone in on exactly what the legal question was."

Sosman was known in political circles as a skilled pianist, but Marshall said fewer colleagues knew of her immense talent as a gardener. The Concord native also was a devoted Red Sox fan.

Gov. Deval Patrick will appoint a new justice to serve on the seven-judge panel. A spokesman said Sunday that Patrick will talk more about the process he will use to fill the vacancy after Sosman's funeral services.

"She was a wise judge and a good personal friend," Patrick said in a written statement. "She leaves a great void on the Court."

Typically, the governor convenes a nominating commission to propose several potential justices and appoints one from that list. The justice would appear at a public hearing and then face a ratification vote from the Gov.'s Council, an eight-member elected body that confirms judges, said Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Judicial Court.

In 2003, when a high court ruling made Massachusetts the first state in the nation to legalize gay marriage, Sosman wrote a strenuous dissent for the court's minority. In her opinion, she belittles the majority's advisory opinion, saying that it "merely repeats the impassioned rhetoric" of gay marriage advocates.

She said the argument to define gays partnerships as marriages versus civil unions was "a squabble over the names to be used." To highlight her point, she quoted from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" -- "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet."

In the majority opinion, Marshall chided Sosman, writing that she "so clearly misses the point that further discussion appears to be useless."

In 2000, Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci appointed Sosman to the high court as an associate justice.

At the time, Cellucci hailed her as a "conservative" jurist who would react to decisions by lawmakers and not create state policy by loosely interpreting laws. However, many abortion foes protested the selection because of Sosman's past service on the board of directors of Planned Parenthood.

Sosman worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Massachusetts under then-U.S. Attorney, and future governor, William Weld, from 1984 to 1989. She founded an all-women law firm in 1989, where she worked until Gov. Weld appointed her to the Superior Court in 1993.

She was a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont and the University of Michigan Law School.

Family members were gathering at Sosman's Concord home on Sunday, said Leland Sosman, the judge's father and a retired radiologist.

"There are a whole bunch of us here now," he said. "We're looking at things she's done and all of her great successes through the years and we'd prefer to leave it at that."

Sosman, who was never married, is survived by her father, and a sister, Nancy. A funeral has not yet been planned.