State Supreme Court justice recalls college’s influence on career

by Max Reyes / Beacon Staff • March 29, 2017

Elspeth Cypher graduated Emerson with a degree in communication studies in 1980.
Courtesy of Elspeth Cypher
Elspeth Cypher graduated Emerson with a degree in communication studies in 1980.
Courtesy of Elspeth Cypher

Elspeth Cypher moved back to Boston in 1981. An Emerson alumna, she spent some time at Kent State University in Ohio for graduate school before realizing she missed cobblestone streets and countless Dunkin’ Donuts. She had an apartment in Back Bay and two jobs: one as a clerk at a computer center, the other as an adjunct professor at Rhode Island College.

She was walking back from the computer center job when she ran into professor Michael Brown at the corner of Berkeley and Beacon Streets, then the location of Emerson’s campus.

The two knew each other well. Cypher, the first Emerson graduate to sit on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, had taken Brown’s U.S. History class as an undergraduate in the late 1970s.

“She was just really smart,” Brown said. “[She was] a perfect student.”

He asked her what she was doing with herself.

“I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do,” Cypher said. “I really, truly didn’t know.”

Brown, a practicing lawyer at the time, recommended that she go to law school. It wasn’t the first time he’d done so, either: Cypher, now 58, said he always wrote it on her exams.

“I said I’d work and save some money for a while and he said, ‘There will never be enough money, so just go,’” Cypher said during a talk she gave on campus last Thursday.

She took night classes at Suffolk University Law School, and while she studied, Brown hired her as a clerk for his law firm.

Cypher became a trial attorney at Brown’s firm before leaving private practice to work for the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office in 1988. By 1993, Cypher had taken charge of the office’s appellate division.

“She had a great balance of what is fair and what is right,” said state Rep. Christopher Markey, who worked with Cypher in Bristol County as an assistant DA. “She was the office’s moral compass.”

Cypher participated in several noteworthy cases, including the one against the Rev. James Porter, who had abused over 100 children in Massachusetts. She argued for the public in Commonwealth v. Kater. James Kater was indicted in 1978 for murder and appealed seven times between then and 2000. His fourth trial ended with his conviction. Cypher argued against his appeals multiple times.

Cypher said Emerson, where she majored in communication studies, prepared her for law school and practicing law in a variety of ways.

“What really helped was the background in critical thinking and communication,” she said.

In 2000, at the recommendation of a colleague, Cypher nominated herself for a position on the Massachusetts Appeals Court.

Cypher made it through every step of the lengthy process, and former Gov. Paul Cellucci appointed her to the position. On Dec. 27, 2000, Cypher joined the Appeals Court.

“[I felt] stunned [and] incredibly humbled by how serious it is to be trusted with the job,” she said.

Cypher said Emerson was an incredibly open, creative place where people were free to express their sexualities. Cypher dated her first girlfriend while at Emerson.

For most of her life, Cypher said, she struggled with defining her sexual orientation, and was never comfortable with any particular term to describe herself.

“Now I just consider myself old,” she said. “There’s really no label.”

She married her wife in 2005, and the two have an adult son.

Sixteen years after nominating herself to the appeals court, Cypher repeated the process, this time for the Supreme Judicial Court. She was confirmed in March, meaning Governor Charlie Baker has appointed more than half of the seven justices on the bench—where Cypher will be sitting by April.