For an adult, it’s no small task to keep high schoolers on the edge of their seats, engaged and hanging on every word.
But that’s just what Boston Municipal Court Chief Justice Robert Ronquillo achieved when he visited Charlestown High School last Thursday, March 14, as part of a month-long effort by the state judiciary to get out into Boston area schools.
Ronquillo grew up in El Paso, TX, and was the son of an auto mechanic who had immigrated from Mexico in the 1950s. Ronquillo said he had always figured he would also be an auto mechanic until one day taking a trip to see his uncle at a courthouse in Mexico. After watching his uncle as a lawyer, and seeing the excitement of a courthouse, he became determined to be a lawyer.
After studying encyclopedias during the summers in the backyard and listening to hundreds of people tell him he wasn’t smart enough to be a lawyer, he eventually came to Boston to go to Law School – where he graduated.
“That was my goal,” he said, asking the students what their dream jobs were. “You have goals too. There will be a lot of people who will tell you aren’t smart enough to do that. They’ll say really smart people do those jobs and you have to work hard. All of that is true, but there are some people out there who want to do these things that won’t fight hard to get there…Along the way you may have some crummy jobs. That’s what you have to do. After I graduated college, I was a janitor mopping floors and taking out the trash. I didn’t stay there long, but it was part of the journey. That journey is what you have to do to get where you want to go. You have to prove yourself. That’s what builds your work ethic.”
Ronquillo became a lawyer in Massachusetts, passing the Bar Exam and deciding to stay here and raise his family. After becoming an assistant district attorney, and then in a long stretch as a criminal defense attorney, he got a nudge one day from a judge who suggested he try to become a judge.
“You have judges and you have lawyers and you have the other guys,” he said. “I was one of the other guys, but when that judge told me to apply to become a judge, it planted a seed.”
In fact, he said, it gave him a goal he didn’t even know he had. He told the students it’s important to listen to the people around you, as they might see something in you that you don’t. That was the case for his journey as a judge. After a few unsuccessful applications, he was finally appointed more than a decade ago to the bench, serving first in Dorchester District Court.
Now, he has become the chief administrator over all of the Boston courts – including the Charlestown Court. He oversees eight courthouses and 30 judges in the system.
After a lively talk about sentencing and the law, the most riveting part of the talk came when he discussed a case that has stuck with him. It was a drug case for a kid in college who had – in a move to impress a girl – had sold cocaine to an undercover police officer. Even though he didn’t have a record, the case went to trial and the young man was facing jail time.
Despite tears throughout the courtroom, Ronquillo was faced with a predicament due to mandatory two-year sentencing. The choice was not a good one – violate the sentencing law or send a young man who made one mistake to a long time in jail.
He had no choice but to send him to jail, but he told the students he has never forgotten the case. “That case bothered me because I’m not sure the judicial system served that guy well,” he said. “That is the hardest part of being a judge because by doing your job, like in this case, you really affect people’s lives.”