Justice Shannon Frison was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court in 2013. She is the youngest judge on that court. Frison took that seat after serving for more than 4 years on the Boston Municipal Court in from 2009-2013, beginning her tenure on the bench at age 39. Frison is a past president of the Massachusetts Black Judges Conference from 2010 to 2013. She is a jurist, a Major of Marines, a speaker, and a mentor to trial lawyers and law students. Before appointment, Frison practiced locally and abroad as owner of Frison Law Firm, P.C. Her practice focused on "blue collar" criminal law and military justice. She tried several high-profile murder, rape, and conspiracy cases in the Boston area and in the military courts of North Carolina, Pensacola, Florida, and Okinawa, Japan. Her final case before taking the bench was a tragic and complex quadruple murder that occurred in Dorchester and was tried in Suffolk Superior Court.
Frison spent nearly seven years as a litigation associate at the former white collar defense firm Dwyer & Collora, LLP in Boston prior to opening her own firm – Frison Law Firm. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Government from Harvard & Radcliffe Colleges in 1992 and her Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law Center in 1995. Frison was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1995 and began her career as an Assistant District Attorney with the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office where she worked out of the Quincy District Court.
Frison holds the rank of Major in the United States Marine Corps and is a Marine Corps Judge Advocate. She completed Officer Candidates School and accepted her commission in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1994; and she completed The Basic School and Naval Justice School in 1997. From 1997-2000, she was the prosecutor (Trial Counsel) aboard Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Since the beginning of the hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, Frison has been mobilized to active duty twice in support of the Global War on Terror in both legal and nonlegal capacities. Her duties have taken her to the G-5 War Plans Branch of the Marine Forces Pacific in Hawaii as well as the Keystone Judicial Circuit in Japan. In addition to serving the country and practicing law, she has served as a Guberman Teaching Fellow at Brandeis University for three years teaching "Introduction to Law", as well as appearing as guest lecturer at Brandeis on military justice and military tribunals. Frison was also a member of the Boston Bar Association’s Task Force To Prevent Wrongful Convictions and Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop. The judge is a member of the Roxbury Community College Advisory Board. She has taught trial advocacy twice a year for more than 13 years at Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop, founded by Professor Charles Ogletree. For over 10 years, Frison has spoken as the keynote on bias and diversity for the Massachusetts Bar Association’s quarterly Practicing With Professionalism Course. The Course is required for all new lawyers in Massachusetts. Frison speaks regularly on the topics of Trial Advocacy, Race & Bias, and Diversity for bar associations, law schools, colleges, businesses, and agencies. She is a TED speaker from TEDx Bradenton in 2022 where she discussed conformity, authenticity, and the role bias has played in her life and career.
Race and Bias in Criminal Justice
I became a judge in 2009. I was 39 years old. Justice Charles Johnson was the Chief of the Boston Municipal Court when I was appointed in 2009 – He said "you can’t do the Justice Charles Johnson or the Justice Pamela Dashiell on the bench. He said I must do the Shannon Frison". I didn’t know exactly what he meant at the time, but I knew I should remember it. I didn’t know then that he was telling me not to conform. And here’s why:
In 2020, the judges in Massachusetts learned that, as a whole, we impose higher cash bail and longer prison sentences on Black and Brown people in Massachusetts.
In a Report by The Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, Black and Latinx people are more likely to have their cases resolved in the Massachusetts Superior Court – where I sit – and where the available sentences are longer, both because they are more likely to be charged with offenses for which the Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction and because prosecutors are more likely to exercise their discretion to bring their cases in Superior Court instead of District Court when there is concurrent jurisdiction. Black and Latinx people charged with drug offenses and weapons offenses are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer incarceration sentences than white people charged with the same offenses. Black and Latinx people charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences are substantially more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than white people facing the same charges.
Oh, we had anecdotal evidence before 2020. But we now have confirmation that we are creating a disparate impact in the two areas in which judges have the most discretion. Would you believe that in the present day, the Black and Brown people in Massachusetts still do not have consistent access to justice?
But I’m not a statistician or a social scientist or any other type of scorekeeper. I’m a judge. And this is happening in Massachusetts on my court. Today. Not in 1820, not some unenlightened corner of the world – but Massachusetts.
We are uniform in our bias. The judges. Our collective bias against dark skin. Conformity of thought and the subconscious.
Authenticity in the Workplace and World
I am 53 years old. I have been a judge in Massachusetts for 13 years. My family is in Mississippi. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I was the valedictorian at my high school, Hyde Park Career Academy. From there I went to Harvard. In 1992, I graduated and went to Georgetown University Law Center. During law school, I joined the United States Marine Corps as a Judge Advocate. I went to OCS in 1994 and TBS in 1996. Between those two schools, I was a prosecutor for the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. I then went onto active duty as a prosecutor at Marine Corps Air Station New River. I have served in North Carolina, Quantico, Virginia, Okinawa, Japan, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I spent 7 years at a litigation law firm in Boston before opening my own practice in 2007. By 2009, I became a judge. I have been appointed to 2 courts in Massachusetts – the BMC and the Superior Court, where I now sit.
And yet, I have twice been accused of being a gang member. Right.
The first time was in Japan. I was a practicing lawyer. In 2006, I represented a female Sailor in Okinawa, Japan. She was charged with conspiracy to murder. My goal was to save her life and keep her out of the Brig.
My sailor’s trial was conducted by largely, if not all, white men. The members of the jury ranged in rank from senior enlisted to full- bird colonel. The colonel was considered the senior member, and like all things military – ran the jury. At the table next to us was the prosecutor, what the military calls a trial counsel. I knew him from my years of being in the Marine Corps as a judge advocate. If fact, I had served with him on that very base. To our left, the box in which all jury members were seated. And ahead and above us – the military judge. Now imagine in addition to this daunting task of defending a conspiracy to murder, and the senior juror says, "I’d like to know if the tattoos her lawyer has are gang related"? That was his only question. I had travelled 7,500 miles to defend this servicemember after a year preparing for trial. And above all else – I was, too, a United States Marine Officer. Just like him. I went on to beat the conspiracy to murder case against my client. She was kicked out of the Navy. Which we expected. But she did not serve one day in the Brig.
The next time, I was a judge. It was two years ago, one day when I served on the BMC, I snapped this selfie in my judicial lobby at the Roxbury Division. I posted this photo on social media as a comedic salute to the KISS rock band. In 2020 I reposted it, I was literally sitting on the bench of the Superior Court in Laurence, Massachusetts when my chief called me about this. Someone anonymously sent a screen shot of the photo to the chief of my court and alleged that I was "throwing up gang signs online". Never mind that I was almost flattered that someone thought I actually knew some gang signs. I had a couple of long conversations with that chief about implicit bias and the curious willingness of people to assume gang membership or criminality from race and tattoos.
And even having "made it", my access has been tenuous at best. When I took the bench, I had the audacity to be myself. To bring my whole self to this job for the benefit of the people I serve.
Race and History
The alleged controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory is both rich and nonsensical. I say alleged because many people I hear attacking this cross-disciplinary examination actually do not know what it is. In 1995, when I began my law studies at Georgetown University Law School, I was specifically trained at that school in Critical Race Theory during my first year. CRT is different than studies of implicit bias. Implicit bias is about the decisions and actions of individuals towards others. Critical Race Theory is about the laws and systems and policies that enable racism, bias, and disparate outcomes for us.
It was a part of my foundational understanding of law in this country. And only amongst law students and law geeks was it controversial. Imagine my surprise when CRT was a main topic during Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing before Congress. It sounded more like a confirmation hearing for ME. Justice Brown Jackson is my college classmate, Harvard class of 1992. And even though CRT is not a specialty or topic of writing or focus of hers, she was harshly grilled on the topic. The tenor was basically, "you’d better not be thinking about race while you are on the bench". How odd a demand in a system rife with racial disparities.
An Abolition Or Prohibition Of CRT Would Prevent Us All From Learning About The History Of Policing As A System in the United States.
How do we begin to discuss the racial disparities in arrests without talking about slave patrols and slave codes, or prosecutions without talking about the wholesale transfer of former slaves to prisons based upon baseless accusations of loitering and joblessness, or about bail without talking about how the cash bail system itself has held behind hundreds of thousands of people of color and in the early days of the penal system cultivated free labor, or sentencing without examining the very beginnings of the criminal justice system and its focus on freed slaves. If you watch the 13th or the 1619 project, you will at least scratch the surface of this discussion. Talking about the plight of minorities in a vacuum, in the absence of historical context, and in suppression of the truth does not advance us in any way. It drags us backwards.
LGBTQ and BLACK in the Marine Corps
This is how I looked in 1996 when I entered the Basic School at Marine Corps Base, Quantico. I had just completed Officer Candidate School and spent a year prosecuting at the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. At the Basic School, Marine lieutenants are taught for 6 months by Marine Captains serving as Platoon Commanders. During my first evaluation meeting with my young, white male Platoon Commander, he told me that upon seeing me for the fire time he thought "Who is the person ‘posing’ as a Marine"? As a Marine, I’d never been so insulted. This is what creates "imposter syndrome". Having been through the same training and being just a few years in seniority behind this Platoon Commander, it was amazing that he felt so superior and felt like it was he who decided who was and was not a Marine. I was too young at the time to have the conversation with him that I would have today if someone said that to me. This is why I speak out about these experiences. I was a United Stated Marine and a lawyer, and he treated me like I was still somehow inferior to him. When you need to sound off about bias, do it. Do it for all of us.
Recently, someone criticized my service in the United States Marine Corps. Specifically, after watching my TED talk, the person said that I was "misleading" in my answer to the question by the MEPS doctor, "have you ever had a problem with homosexuality". Of course I answered "no" and said so in the TED Talk. Though I was making light of the slight play on words, I did not disclose whether or not I was identifying as lesbian or otherwise at the time. And of course, that should not matter. What is so infuriating about the so-called criticism of me is that (1) the person did not and would not say it to my face; (2) he or she missed the ENTIRE point of the story; and (3) that in 2022, someone still feels the need to take a jab at an LGBTQ servicemember who actually served to protect THEM along with the rest of this fine nation. Hate is real, pervasive, and dangerous. For all the servicemembers, past and present, who have had to serve under threat of expulsion and criminal prosecution - I salute you. To those who still anonymously question MY service to the country, there are a few thousand Marines you can ask about that.
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