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Headshot of Roderick Ireland

Distinguished Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Roderick L. Ireland is a graduate of Lincoln University, (the first HBCU in the United States), Columbia Law School (J.D.), Harvard Law School (LL.M), and Northeastern University, Ph.D. in Law, Policy and Society. He began his legal career in 1969 as a Neighborhood Legal Services attorney. In 1971 he founded, along with attorney Wallace Sherwood (who later taught at the SCCJ for 35 years), the Roxbury Defenders Committee, a public defender program that provided free legal services in criminal cases. In 1975 he was appointed the Assistant Secretary and Chief Legal Counsel for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance, and in 1977, the Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Appeals on Motor Vehicle Liability Policies and Bonds. He then served as a judge for 37 years, sitting in the Boston Juvenile Court from 1977 to 1990, the Massachusetts Appeals Court from 1990 to 1997, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from 1997 to 2014. When he was appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997, he became the first African-American to sit on that bench in its over three hundred year history. In 2010 he became the Court’s first African-American chief justice.

Ireland served as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice (formerly the College of Criminal Justice) from 1978 to 2014. He also taught at Harvard Law School, Boston University Law School, Northeastern University School of Law, and the University of Massachusetts in Boston. In addition, he has been on the faculty of New York University Law School’s Appellate Judges Seminar since 2001. He is the author of a two volume treatise on Massachusetts Juvenile Law published by Thomson/Reuters in its Massachusetts Practice Series (the first edition was published in 1993 and the second edition in 2006), as well as several law review articles.

As one of the four justices who voted in favor of same-sex marriage in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003), the nation’s very first case in which a state supreme court declared same-sex marriage constitutional, he has lectured and spoken on that topic a number of times, including giving the Sixteenth Annual Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice at New York University School of Law entitled, “In Goodridge’s Wake:  Reflections on the Political, Public and Personal Repercussions of the Massachusetts Same-Sex Marriage Cases.”

His interests include criminal law, juvenile law, and constitutional law. Of particular interest, given his experience as chief justice of the SJC, is studying both the theory and the reality of how government works, with a focus on the interplay of the judiciary with the legislative and executive branches, as well as with external entities such as the business community and the media. He is also very interested in diversifying the judiciary at all levels through increased training programs, as well as scholarship and fellowship opportunities for minorities, and is president of The Justice George Lewis Ruffin Society, sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. The Ruffin Society is an organization that supports and uplifts minority professionals in the criminal justice system and the legal profession in general.

In 2017, Chief Justice Ireland was asked by the Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to advise the Legislature on issues related to Criminal Justice Reform.  In 2018, he was asked by the Cambridge Police Department to review their arrest policies and procedures in a highly controversial case, and in 2020, he was retained by the City of Springfield, Massachusetts to be Special Advisor on police reform, including reviewing the police department’s policy, training and accountability systems. In 2021 he was asked by the parties to be the claims adjudicator in a multi million dollar class action settlement due to racial discrimination by the city of Brockton.

  • Community Hero Award, 2016, Community Resources for Justice
  • Judicial Excellence Award, 2015, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys
  • Celebration of Excellence Award, 2015, Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association
  • Celebration of Excellence Award, 2015, Massachusetts Black Judges Conference
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, 2015, Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association
  • Judicial Excellence Award, 2014, Boston Bar Association
  • Thurgood Marshall Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2014, Boston NAACP
  • Award for Judicial Excellence, 2013, Massachusetts Judge’s Association
  • Great Friend of Justice Award, 2008, Massachusetts Bar Foundation
  • Judicial Excellence Award, 2001, Massachusetts Bar Association and Lawyers Weekly Newspaper
  • Judicial Excellence Award, 1999, Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys
  • St. Thomas More Award, 1998, Boston College Law School
  • Judicial Excellence Award, 1996, Massachusetts Judges Conference
  • Distinguished Judicial Service Award, 1990, Boston Bar Association
  • Boston Covenant Peace Prize, 1982

Related Schools & Departments

  • Education

    PhD, 1998, Philosophy in Law, Policy, and Society, Northeastern University; JD, Columbia Law School; MS of Laws, Harvard University

  • Contact

  • Address

    204 Churchill Hall
    360 Huntington Avenue
    Boston, MA 02115

Roderick’s Colleagues