Justine Wise Polier gives passionate speech on justice at Christ Church.

October 14, 1952
Justine Wise Polier.
Courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

"Passionate concern may lead to errors of judgment, but the lack of passion in the face of human wrong leads to spiritual bankruptcy..."

Why was Justine Wise Polier such an effective judge?  An important factor was her endorsement of “passionate concern” in matters of justice.  When she spoke these words as part of an address at Christ Church in New York City on this date, she was articulating the very quality that exemplified her judicial career.

Women judges were rare in 1935, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed her to a judgeship in New York’s domestic relations (or family) court.  As Joyce Antler relates in The Journey Home, “The story goes that when the first object of her judicial skills emerged from the courtroom and was asked how it went, he replied, ‘Well, the judge wasn’t there but his wife treated me just fine.’”  Polier was the first woman judge above the level of magistrate in the state and the youngest municipal judge in the country (she was 32).  The law looked askance on women in the profession, with the orator and lawyer Clarence Darrow of the opinion that women were “too kind” and “not cold blooded” enough for the practice.  Polier told the mayor at her nomination that she would agree to serve for only one year, to keep her career options open.  But “as case after case came up, I saw the vast chasms between our rhetoric of freedom, equality and charity, and what we were doing to, or not doing for poor people, especially children.”  She ended up serving for 38 years.

Passionately concerned for the families who appeared before her, Polier sought to turn the juvenile justice system into a tool of treatment rather than punishment.  Attentive to the findings of social and behavioral sciences, Polier turned her court into the center of a web of cooperation between the legal system, families, and a network of social service organizations.  Notably, she helped to develop the concept of the "best interests" of the child as a foundation for legal decision-making.  

She only left the bench to extend the scope of her work on behalf of children, becoming the director of the Juvenile Justice Division of the Children's Defense Fund, monitoring juvenile detention policies across the United States.  She also guided the work of Louise Wise Services, an adoption agency working to ensure that Jewish children in need of adoption were placed with loving families.

As Antler notes, “According to her daughter, Polier was a Don Quixote, always tilting at windmills.  In fact, in the hallway of her home was a framed lithograph of a favorite Daumier painting of Don Quixote, a gift from family members that seemed to embody Polier’s own determination and passion.”

Sources:  “Justine Wise Polier”; “Judge Justine Wise Polier retires”; The Journey Home, Joyce Antler, Free Press, 1997; "Basic Elements of Friendly Frontiers," address at Christ Church, October 14, 1952, Justine Wise Polier papers, box 45, folder 563. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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Jewish Women's Archive. "Justine Wise Polier gives passionate speech on justice at Christ Church.." (Viewed on May 28, 2024) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/oct/14/1952/justine-wise-polier-gives-passion-voice-in-justice>.