One last trip down the aisle

Eileen McNamara
September 21, 1996
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Judge Paul H. King supplied his own epitaph a decade ago when the Supreme Judicial Court removed him as presiding judge of Dorchester District Court.

"When they drag me down the aisle the final time," he told me defiantly, "I'll be singing 'I Did it My Way.' "

At his funeral in St. Gerard's in Canton yesterday, Father Bernard McLaughlin evoked that irreverent spirit when he recalled first seeing Paul King as a boy. He opened his front door in their Revere neighborhood to find Paul throwing rocks at his brother, Ed, the future governor of Massachusetts.

"I hid back inside and didn't come out again for about six months," the priest quipped.

Paul King, on the other hand, kept throwing rocks.

He was named to the bench in 1967 by GOP Gov. John A. Volpe, even though he had long been a Democratic activist. Judge King soon developed a reputation for thoroughness that reflected his dual training as both an accountant and a lawyer.

He was hailed as a reformer in 1974 when he was elevated to presiding judge in Dorchester after the Supreme Judicial Court removed Judge Jerome P. Troy for unethical business dealings and abuse of his judicial position.

He took charge just as Dorchester was poised to become one of the busiest of the state's 69 district courts. He applied a work ethic few equaled, arriving before 8 a.m. to review probation records of every defendant, never leaving before 6 p.m.

But the dilapidated courthouse on Washington Street seemed destined for controversy. In 1979, Associate Justice Margaret C. Scott was censured by the SJC for class and racial bias. And, before long, it was the conduct of Judge King that prompted protests and, in 1986, cost him the job he so clearly loved.

His integrity was unquestioned, but Judge King began to look less like an energetic reformer than a petty despot. He ran his courtroom like a feudal kingdom, mocking abused women, demeaning defendants and belittling cops and court officers alike. The investigatory report by the SJC was a veritable catalog of intemperate remarks from the bench.

To a battered woman: "What did you do to make him hit you?"

To an obese defendant: "Maybe if you tried running around the block a few times a day, you wouldn't have time to write bad checks."

To a Vietnam veteran: "No wonder we lost the war."

To a defendant whose mother was trying to speak to him in court: "Who's that bimbo?"

His conduct was intolerable, but even his critics recognized that his excesses sprang not from inherent meanness but from both the arrogance of power and the personal disabilities Judge King was loath to acknowledge.

In truth, the deterioration of the courthouse in Codman Square mirrored his own. He suffered from arthritis that left him bent, but never bowed. To watch him on the bench was to wince in sympathy from the pain so obvious on his face.

"You've got to play hurt," the lifelong hockey fan would tell colleagues who urged him to go home. He had such a high threshold for pain himself that he lost the capacity to empathize with those whose suffering seemed less profound.

Paul King's tragedy was that he stayed too long, beyond the point where his body or his mind could tolerate the demands of handling thousands of cases a year.

He was wrong about so many things. Domestic violence is not a "tempest in a teapot" fabricated by wily females looking for a leg up in a divorce action, as he told me. Confrontation does not always "beget solution," as he often told terrified employees. The Dorchester courthouse was not his, but ours.

But, in an era when few in power work as hard or have either the candor or the conviction to say what they really think, there was much to admire in Judge King.

Three years after he was banned from Dorchester and barred from hearing all but minor civil cases, the Judicial Conduct Commission subpoenaed me to testify at Judge King's disciplinary hearing. I would say only that the articles I wrote accurately reflected statements Judge King made to me.

Winking from the defense table, Judge King blew me a kiss and asked that the record reflect his objection to only one quotation. "It should read: 'When they drag me down the aisle the final time, I'll be singing 'I Did It My Way' and 'God Bless America,'" he said.

And that's exactly what the church organist played yesterday as the Hon. Paul H. King went down the aisle the final time.

Commentary 1997