Law and disorder
Conflicts and controversy at Dudley District Court forced presiding justice
Milt Raphaelson to walk away from his post. Now the prestigious judge
is fighting to preserve his legacy and his reputation.
by Kristen Lombardi
THE DAY WILL BE FOREVER etched in his memory. March 1990, and Milton
Raphaelson, a 67-year-old judge with startling eyes and an affable demeanor,
stood on-stage at Mechanics Hall before 600 friends, family, and
officials. Speeches were made, oaths were taken. It was the pomp and
circumstance Raphaelson had waited for much of his life.
"I stood there, nervous and excited, thinking, This is the culmination of a
great deal of time and effort," he recounts.
The day Raphaelson became a district court justice might have marked a
crowning moment in a lengthy career. Through sheer drive and conviction, he had
built a reputation in the Worcester legal community as a "super lawyer" who
strove to do right by clients. Now, it seemed, he could expect a decorative
But accolades never prompted him to apply for the post. Instead, he had a
cause, for which he's championed loudly and incessantly ever since. "I made a
promise to do something about substance abuse and [its connection to] crime,"
Raphaelson has kept the pledge. In the past two years, while presiding over
Dudley District Court, he's become an innovator in court-based drug and alcohol
treatment. Under his guidance, the Dudley court boasted alternative-to-jail
programs for offenders with substance-abuse problems, long before the state
Supreme Judicial Court launched a May 1997 initiative that mirrored
Raphaelson's work. He has given lectures at conferences, hosted tours for
Boston court employees.
His crusade, however, had its price. For a sitting justice, Raphaelson's
advocacy has always been rare. But it soon was perceived as passionate, even
fanatical by his detractors -- a reckless use of the much-esteemed bench. Even
those who admire Raphaelson admit to growing weary of his unremitting
His unorthodox sentencing, in which he occasionally handed down homework
assignments, often attracted media attention. Yet lately, his candor on the
system's inner operations has commanded the spotlight, propelling him into a
world of controversy. It started to unravel in November, when Raphaelson
stunned the legal community by resigning as Dudley's first justice. After a
long-standing feud with the court's clerk-magistrate, Kenneth Candito, over
such administrative issues as parked cars on the courthouse lawn and coffee in
courtrooms, Raphaelson decided to serve the circuit only as a fill-in judge. He
then publicly lambasted his Dudley successor, Judge Vito Virzi, for ordering
the court's in-house counselor, Peter Kosciusko, to leave the premises just
three days after Virzi's arrival, thereby dismantling the programs that took
Raphaelson years to develop, and prompting the unexpected resignation of
Kosciusko. (Just this week Virzi re-instated the "Honor Court" program which
will be held at a nearby church.) Simultaneously, Virzi expelled a lunch cart
from the court, which two mentally handicapped women had operated, one for
Raphaelson then intensified the heat by revealing his perception of the affair
during a few stressful weeks when friends actually worried about his physical
health. Essentially, Raphaelson has said, his superiors -- primarily, District
Court Chief Justice Samuel Zoll -- aren't supporting him because of his frank
manner. "The administration wants me to don my robe and have proper
presentation," he maintains. The experience left him so distraught, he took an
extended leave before returning to the circuit as a traveling judge last
For the man behind the controversy, this is not a matter of professional ego.
His actions around his resignation, apparently, stem more from a world view.
"My father believes that the system works," explains Raphaelson's attorney son
Henry. Throughout 36 years of legal work, Raphaelson says, he's tried hard to
make a difference, only to watch his Dudley legacy slip away. In essence, this
self-described "idealist" is finally learning the system isn't always fair.
LAW, AS A PROFESSION, never entered Raphaelson's mind during childhood.
And this is an ironic realization for him today, as he sips coffee and reflects
on his life's work. Raphaelson may not say so, but his pained expression
reveals a feeling that his legal career should be celebrated. Instead, he must
sit with mug in hand, and defend himself and his programs -- something he, as a
kid, never imagined having to do.
He and his brothers, Alvin and Elliot, grew up on Worcester's Derby Street, in
a strict, Orthodox household with a classic immigrant work-hard-my-child ethos.
His Russian father, Harry, made a modest living as a grocer, specializing in
fruits, vegetables, and meats. His mother, Sarah, kept an intact domicile, "as
women in the 1930s did," he says.
To this day, Raphaelson recalls his parents' regimented lifestyles. His father
worked with uncanny precision: mornings at six, he trudged off to the family's
shop and then evenings, "always at ten minutes to seven," Raphaelson notes, he
returned home. His mother observed Judaic principles with equal exactitude,
sending kosher meals to her husband so he wouldn't munch on ham at the store.
Early on, Raphaelson learned the value of duty. He began working at age 10,
delivering his father's lunch on Saturdays. It was a task he took seriously.
Once, while playing kickball with friends, he gashed his ankle. But before
tending to the wound, he handed over lunch -- on time. Today, he laughs off the
story as if insignificant. "I did what my family told me," he says. Yet his
wife, Elizabeth, a svelte, rosy-cheeked woman, replies, "Milt's the most
responsible person I know."
Between secular and Hebrew classes, Raphaelson toiled at the store, eventually
manning the meat-slicing machine. Time there allowed him to witness his
father's modus operandi, which Raphaelson describes as "friendly and
respectful," unless he felt mistreated. Raphaelson remembers watching a
prestigious yet smug doctor bark directions at his father, who then commented
on the physician's rudeness.
"I am a doctor," the customer said.
"It must have been easy to become one," his father retorted.
It's a telling exchange, illustrating a virtue Raphaelson's parents instilled
in their sons by example -- integrity. "My father taught me that honesty is the
only way to deal with people," Raphaelson says. In retrospect, he adds, he's
never considered conducting life in a disingenuous manner. Of course, he's
rarely had to; his principled pedigree has served him well throughout
RAPHAELSON ENLISTED IN the United States Army in 1951, and
immediately, discovered his talent for persuasion. He had turned 21 on a
service boat heading to Korea. Arriving at the barracks, he searched for a
place to drink a birthday beer. But to his chagrin, he found that privates were
excluded from officers' clubs. Raphaelson filed a complaint, claiming the
practice was unfair.
"I made so much noise that privates got their own club," he says, with a
The experience, albeit satisfying, didn't inspire his legal career. Instead,
he finished a three-year stint in the army and returned to the family shop. "I
figured I would be a grocer," he explains. If Raphaelson gained anything from
the military, though, it was that he had a bright mind. So he took advantage of
the GI bill and enrolled in business courses at Clark University.
Raphaelson then decided on law school, but not because of a desire for
legalese. He graduated from Clark in three years and was entitled to another
under the GI bill, so he applied to night classes at Boston College School of
Law. Raphaelson recalls friends and family members kidding him: Milt, you're
too much of an idealist to be a lawyer. You won't make any money. Even at
age 27, he was perceived as a man who had yet to shake off youthful dreams.
He started practicing law at age 31, and developed a reputation for taking on
anything -- divorce, housing, tort cases. Still, he struggled. By that time,
Raphaelson had four children, Henry (now 44), Laurie (now 42), Candee (now 38),
and Jeffrey (now 35). "I had kids to feed and my first year as a lawyer I
billed 2600 hours," he says. The only Sizzlean he brought home was the same he
sliced at the shop; he worked as a lawyer by day and meat-cutter by night for
Still, his diligence was not overlooked. A Worcester Superior Court judge,
Henry Meagher, took a liking to Raphaelson's down-to-earth sensibility. "He was
fortunate to enjoy confidence of a senior judge, who appointed him to big
cases," recalls Dennis Brennan, a Raphaelson contemporary, now a Worcester
District Court judge.
Meagher assigned Raphaelson to a 1972 case, O'Coin's vs. Treasurer of
Worcester County, which argued for increased judicial control over court
budgets. Previously, Meagher had sat at a hearing that came to a halt because
the stenographer had the day off. Rather than delay, Meagher asked a police
officer to buy a tape recorder at an appliance store, O'Coin's. The county
treasurer refused to pay the $86, arguing it was for an unauthorized
The O'Coin's case went to the state Supreme Judicial Court, and
Worcester's legal community watched as Raphaelson confronted seven, stern-faced
justices. "It was a seminal case. No one had challenged [allocation of] the
judicial budget," says Brennan. Raphaelson not only won but changed state law.
Now, whenever judges lack goods and services, they have authority to obtain
Success placed Raphaelson, along with a handful of colleagues, on the
courthouse "master list," the county's A Team of lawyers assigned to
high-profile murder cases. He handled 17 murder cases in 17 years; only two
clients were sentenced to life in prison. One of them, Abimael Colon-Cruz, a
31-year-old Hispanic man, brought Raphaelson before the illustrious SJC again.
It was 1984. Colon-Cruz and two friends were going to trial on charges that
they killed a state trooper; and because of a 1982 statute permitting capital
punishment in 10 kinds of crimes, they were facing death. Legislators wrote the
statute after Massachusetts voters passed an amendment permitting the
death penalty. The law's constitutionality, however, had yet to be tested in
The day Colon-Cruz was arrested, Raphaelson recalls, Worcester attorneys went
into hiding. "No one wanted to represent someone accused of killing a state
trooper. You'd make a lot of enemies," he explains.
But Raphaelson wasn't one to balk at unpopular assignments. He walked into the
courthouse and informed judges of his willingness to serve. A few hours later,
he visited Colon-Cruz, undergoing psychiatric exams at Bridgewater State
Raphaelson told his client: "I'll represent you as if I had received a million
dollars for the case."
Colon-Cruz replied: "What choice do I have?"
Raphaelson kept his promise. He, along with colleagues Brennan and Donald
Deren, successfully challenged the state's death-penalty statute, thereby
saving Colon-Cruz's life. In Commonwealth vs. Abimael Colon-Cruz, the
SJC deemed the statute unconstitutional because it precluded a
defendant's right to a jury trial. (Those who pleaded guilty didn't face
capital punishment.) Ever since that ruling, the Legislature's failed to write
and pass another death-penalty statute.
In spite of such high-profile attention, Raphaelson remained an amiable figure
at the courthouse. The more significant the case, the more he appeared to help
attorneys. "He was always a lawyer's lawyer. You could call for advice, and he
was very generous with his time," Worcester attorney Fran Ford says.
After 30 years of courtroom persuasion, Raphaelson still had a reputation for
integrity (rare, for sure). Worcester attorney Andrew Meagher, son of Judge
Meagher, says, "Milt always wanted to do the right thing for people. He was
passionate and idealistic then, just as now."
IT'S NOT SURPRISING that Raphaelson, a man of apparent altruism, made it
his mission to become a judge. Ten years into his career, he was keenly aware
of a lawyer's shortcomings: he could represent individual clients in their best
interests, but not address global problems.
"I wanted to make the world a better place," he says, with eyes so direct, you
sense sincerity. "As a judge, I could make a difference in hundreds of people's
A lofty goal, no doubt. But in his seven years as judge, first traveling the
circuit, then presiding over Dudley District Court, Raphaelson's left quite an
impression on those around him. Take Southbridge attorney Michael Osowski, who
initially encountered Raphaelson at a 1993 Worcester hearing. Osowski had heard
the judge "was all about helping people," he says, but that didn't calm his
nerves. He was waiting for proceedings to begin, when Raphaelson motioned him
to the bench.
"He took me aside and said, You're a new lawyer, right? Tell me about
yourself. He made me feel comfortable," Osowski recalls.
At Dudley courthouse, Raphaelson rarely spent time cloistered in his chambers.
Instead, he strolled through the lobby and chatted with lawyers, employees,
even offenders. "He made the courthouse enjoyable," Webster attorney Michael
Erlich says. On the bench, he was known for fairness, efficiency, and genuine
concern for the accused.
"His motivation is to get people on the right track. He has followers even
among defendants," says James Korman, Southbridge lawyer and Southern Worcester
County Bar Association president.
It wasn't long before Raphaelson's judicial work received media attention.
Just months after Raphaelson became Dudley's first justice, in January 1995,
his rehabilitation work was in the news; he had set up nightly Alcoholics
Anonymous meetings at court and forced defendants with substance-abuse problems
to attend in lieu of jail or fines.
By then, his opinion on substance abuse and crime -- namely, drugs and alcohol
cause most violations -- was widely known. If he wasn't offering a litany of
statistics to colleagues (Eighty percent of crime occurs when offenders are
under influence.), he was promoting court-based treatment at conferences.
His advocacy took on an obsessive quality: "It was frustrating, because Milty
always ended up talking about substance abuse," admits Worcester attorney
Yet Raphaelson's bold, dogmatic character kept him in the spotlight throughout
his two-year Dudley tenure. If the judge behaved in an unusual way, newspapers
reported it. Like when he settled a dispute over whether a 1986 Ford Mustang
had a loud muffler by asking the car owner to spin through the court parking
lot. Or when he sat at the trial of two Dudley teenagers who had burned a
30-inch cross on a black-family's lawn; his unparalleled sentence, in which he
ordered the men to read and write on American racism, captured-attention of the
His actions didn't always fare favorably. In January 1996, Raphaelson
expressed his views on domestic violence in the trade publication,
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, arguing that victims must take some
responsibility for staying in abusive relationships. His opinion sparked furor
in the legal community. Even Attorney General Scott Harshbarger responded in a
letter published in the same journal, accusing Raphaelson of vilifying victims
and taking an "outrageous and misguided" position.
And then, there were reports of Raphaelson appearing to defy professional
protocol. Take the Dudley woman, Elizabeth Donald, who filed a complaint
against Raphaelson last August, accusing him of calling her "insane." Donald
had gone to court alleging that her neighbor, with whom she had been feuding,
was a stalker. Donald and her neighbor had repeatedly battled; family members
had been imprisoned for vandalism and assault. Minutes into the hearing,
Raphaelson interrupted: "The totality is that these people are both clearly
relatively insane with respect to each other."
His remarks, in context, didn't seem outrageous, but the media coverage was
tainting his image. No longer was Raphaelson's honesty seen solely as a virtue.
"Talk among lawyers is that he pops off when he shouldn't," explains one
Worcester attorney. Once Raphaelson donned the judicial robe, he was held to a
different standard. He had become a public figure, after all, and many in the
legal community criticized him for being too opinionated, too candid.
His son Jeffrey offers this observation: "My father's a man of directness, and
this has served him well. But he's worked outside of corporate culture [so] he
was never taught about importance of style."
It is Raphaelson's frankness, in part, that has left him mired in controversy.
Internal trouble at Dudley court became public back in November, when
Raphaelson requested a reprieve of his duties and then resigned. He said poor
relations with Candito, as well as lack of support from his superiors, prompted
the decision. "I have found it inordinately difficult to work with the
clerk-magistrate, and our differences are now insurmountable," he had said.
In essence, Raphaelson's said Candito behaved as if he were Dudley's presiding
justice, carrying out his administrative agenda, exceeding authority, and then
appealing to Judge Zoll for support. "He thought he was my co-equal, and my
superiors made it perfectly clear I was the one to blame," Raphaelson
maintains. Both Candito and Zoll declined to be interviewed.
To many who worked with Raphaelson, the circumstances behind his Dudley
departure are regrettable. He had fostered strong ties with SWCBA members,
district attorneys, even towns served by the court -- Charlton, Dudley, Oxford,
Southbridge, Sturbridge, and Webster. He had worked hard at making the court an
influential institution, particularly with regard to substance-abuse treatment.
"Raphaelson is a special character and sorely missed in Dudley," says Korman.
Some, naturally, are less willing to forget. Although friction between
Raphaelson and Candito was hardly a secret among lawyers and court employees,
many find it incomprehensible that Raphaelson didn't get Zoll's backing. One
Oxford attorney bristles at the outcome: "The administrative judges didn't do
right by Raphaelson, and that is unforgivable."
WHEN IT COMES TO substance abuse, Raphaelson often allows fervor to take
over. And this is how supporters explain his public castigation of his
successor, Judge Vito Virzi, once Virzi ordered Dudley court's substance-abuse
counselor, Peter Kosciusko, to vacate the premises, then stopped all
court-based treatment programs last December. "Raphaelson's passion for
substance abuse overcame his reason," Judge Brennan says.
Raphaelson lashed out at Virzi on December 22, accusing him of letting
Raphaelson's legacy slip away. Virzi could not be reached for comment, yet he's
publicly maintained that his decision was based on courthouse space
constraints. He has since announceed that a portion of the substance-abuse
program will be held at a Dudley church. Virzi's actions, however, proved so
disturbing to Raphaelson that he used accrued sick time to take a three-week
"I couldn't concentrate on the bench," he says, his face pinched with
distress. "The experience has made me sick. I haven't had a moment of peace."
Raphaelson's troubled reaction comes as no surprise. He applied to the Dudley
post to establish drug and alcohol programs, he says. With 462 drunken-driving
cases in fiscal 1996, Dudley District Court has the second-highest percentage
(10 percent) of alcohol-related cases in the state. "I knew substance abuse is
a rampant problem in that district," he adds.
Raphaelson started AA meetings in court so offenders with drug problems could
learn 12 steps of sobriety. The sessions took on a formal character after
Kosciusko, who had read about Raphaelson's work, visited the judge. "I wanted
him to include an educational component so addicts learned of addiction," says
Kosciusko, then a counselor for a Worcester court-mandated drunken-driving
Raphaelson quickly procured a $35,000 grant from Commerce Insurance Co. of
Webster. The money went to Adcare Educational Institute in Worcester, which
hired Kosciusko as an in-house court counselor. Kosciusko assessed offenders
that Raphaelson suspected to be addicts, then recommended treatment, ranging
from AA meetings, to out-patient counseling, to enrollment in halfway houses.
In nearly two years, Raphaelson and Kosciusko instituted comprehensive
services. There was the alternative-to-jail program, "Honor Court," which
included 12-step meetings and sessions on the disease of addiction, relapse,
and anger management, for instance. There were drug screenings and support
groups for families, women, and Spanish- and Polish-speakers. Just before
Raphaelson's departure, the two men had set up a group for young offenders,
aged 17 to 22.
"Raphaelson dreamed of a community courthouse, where people would just walk in
and get help," explains Kosciusko.
By many accounts, the programs enabled that to happen. Kosciusko points to
statistics to indicate efficacy (Of 156 people in the young offenders group,
only six were rearrested.), but more compelling evidence is anecdotal.
Denise S. still recalls standing before the judge, nauseated, her breath
stinking of alcohol. Denise, who asked that her last name not be used, knew she
was in trouble; she had been arrested the night before on drunken-driving
charges -- her third time.
"I thought for sure I was going to jail," Denise says.
At her arraignment, however, Raphaelson advised her to go to three AA meetings
a week. She went initially to stay out of jail, but after a few months, she
says, "I realized I belonged there." Raphaelson later ordered her to complete
the program. On February 5, she celebrated a year of sobriety.
"The judge opened my eyes to another life," she says.
With outcomes like Denise's, it's no wonder that Raphaelson advocates so
staunchly for substance-abuse treatment. Yet the issue personally resonates
with him as well. His wife, Elizabeth, is a recovering alcoholic, and though
she's been sober for 21 years, the couple cannot forget the pain.
"Milton has firsthand knowledge of the disease, of what it does to you
physically, emotionally, psychologically," Elizabeth says.
"I know some offenders will have a lifetime problem with crime as long as they
continue to abuse alcohol and drugs," Raphaelson adds.
Perhaps because of his private experience, Raphaelson refuses to quietly
accept what has happened to his Dudley legacy. The state criminal-justice
system launched an initiative to install treatment programs in every courthouse
last May, but the Dudley programs were threatened. This irony infuriates
Raphaelson: "I cannot handle the [gap] between what headquarters preaches and
Hypocrisy, and intensifying controversy, has left Raphaelson so deeply
disenchanted, he says, he's uncertain of future judicial plans. But, as with
every trial and tribulation, he has learned. Now, Raphaelson says, he
understands that appearances matter: "I have worked hard. How that can be
overlooked because of politics and bureaucracy is offensive."
It's a lesson in real-world fairness that this idealist could do without.
Kristen Lombardi can be reached at email@example.com.