Retired Judge Robert Barton: Great Career and Great Stories

Retired Superior Court Justice Robert A. Barton, in his home office.

Retired Superior Court Judge Robert A. Barton turned 91 recently. A Bedford resident for almost 60 years, he acknowledges that when in a store or a restaurant, “I don’t know anybody – and nobody knows me.”

But it’s not a lament. A former Marine, he reflects, “You know what they say…. Old age isn’t for sissies.”

Barton’s home office is a testament to what he calls “an interesting life.” Mementos affirm decades of accomplishments – a Marine Corps unit guidon, framed newspaper profiles, a personalized selectman’s chair – with law books filling one wall. And to his right is Alexa the smart speaker.

It’s important for him to remain at home, where he lived with his wife for 50 years. Norma Barton died in March 2015 and he misses her terribly. She was a successful interior designer, and “everything in the house reminds me of her. And I’m comfortable.” Barton has two sons in the area and four grandchildren.

A former selectman, moderator, and college trustee, for more than two decades Barton presided over some of the state’s highest-profile cases. He retired from the bench because the law mandated it, but he is still on top of his game as a storyteller.

Barton traces his roots to Eastern Europe. His father was born in London, which was a stopover on the family’s exodus from Russia. His maternal side was from Lithuania.

He grew up in Everett and in 1952 graduated from Dartmouth College, where he was the catcher on the varsity (“my batting average was higher than my academic average”), and Boston University School of Law three years later.

Anticipating a draft notice, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as an officer candidate; his three years of active duty included 14 months in Okinawa. Although he was executive officer of a tank company, Barton also at times served as a trial lawyer. “The only good thing about tanks was: you didn’t walk,” he said, recalling driving past columns of marching Marines in Okinawa.

While stationed in San Francisco, he met his future wife Norma, a flight attendant.

The Bartons landed in Bedford in 1962 through his aunt and uncle, Sophie and Al Clifford, Bedford realtors. The town was rapidly transitioning. The house they built on Page Road in 1965 was on former Valente family farmland, while The Great Road was known as Gasoline Alley, Barton recalled.

As a young lawyer Barton initially was an assistant district attorney in Cambridge. Early in private practice, he rented space in Boston from the renowned defense attorney and fellow BU Law alumnus F. Lee Bailey (who died on June 3).

“He was off in Ohio defending Sam Sheppard, and all these nutcakes would come into the office and end up seeing me,” he related, including a woman who claimed someone was eating her lamb chops and leaving the bones.

Barton finally found another Boston office before relocating to Muzzey Street in Lexington, moving to Lexington in 1973, where for many years he had a general office with Stephen T. Russian.

Barton was elected to the Bedford Board of Selectmen in 1967 when he was 37. He said he felt comfortable running for office because “I knew the police, and having Barbara Clifford as my cousin really helped.”

When Barton began his career as a selectman, meetings were still taking place in Old Town Hall every week. There was no municipal administrator, Barton said, so “the department heads ran the town.” Over six years his colleagues included Warren Lewellen, Jack Perkins, Charlie Markell, and Ben Sears. (Bedford’s first woman selectman was Louise Maglione, elected in 1974.)

Barton remembers the highlights from his two terms, some of them colorful.

The board awarded Bedford’s first liquor license to the Arrowhead Hotel; sometime later one of the selectmen was sucker-punched in the bar there.

Barton still has the tricorn hat presented by the Bedford Minutemen to each Selectmen chair as honorary commander. “I had been a Marine lieutenant overseas, and suddenly I was commander in chief of these riflemen,” he mused with irony.

Somehow he defused a potential disaster when after an argument with a Bedford selectman, the Lexington board chairman threatened to personally “turn the wheel” that would shut off Bedford’s sewage flow through the neighboring town’s system. “I was chairman, and I’m just trying to keep the peace,” he recalled.

As chairman, Barton also cut the ribbon officially opening Middlesex Community College in two VA Hospital buildings in 1970. Decades later he served on the college’s Board of Trustees, and he still serves on the MCC Foundation Board.

Barton said he didn’t seek a third term in 1973; “I was defending Bedford criminal cases – how could I be a selectman?” But when John Forte was appointed to the bench at Concord District Court, there was an opening for moderator. Barton presided at town meetings for the next five years.

He aspired to serve as a judge, and confirmed that at a town meeting session when a voter addressed him as “your honor” instead of as “Mister Moderator,” Barton replied, “Not yet.”

Gov. Michael Dukakis was a lame duck when he appointed Barton to the bench in 1978; he had been defeated in the Democratic gubernatorial primary by a conservative, Massport Director Ed King. Ideologically, Barton said, many people assumed he was a King appointee. But Dukakis spoke at his retirement party in 2000 and “he said he was very proud.”

Barton noted that when he got wind of a possible judicial appointment, he asked a friend close to the Dukakis campaign if the family should make a contribution, “He told me, ‘If you do, you will never get the appointment.”’

The Bedford jurist was in the headlines for more than two decades. “I had all of the high publicity cases in Massachusetts,” he said. “Lawyers will tell you I was a fair guy, but I was a tough sentencer.” He also pointed out that on appeals, “I was the least reversed judge—I was doing something right.”

Barton reflected on the judicial experience. “You’re a big shot in a little world – everybody rises for you, opens doors.” He said there’s a difference now. Throughout society, “there is less respect for authority.”

Judge Barton retired at age 70 because he had to, thanks to a mandatory age limit voted into law in 1973. “I would have done another five years,” if allowed.

But in retrospect, he continued, the requirement was a blessing. “We traveled the world,” he said. “I would have lost those five years.  I recommend it to everyone if you can afford it and you have a good marriage.”

Late in his career, he auditioned for the television program “Divorce Court.” But it turned out that “they were looking for a ‘television judge.’” Perhaps the most famous is “Judge Judy;” Barton cracked that “if a real judge threw out half the insults that she does, they would be off the bench in 24 hours.”

Barton would know—he was on the state Judicial Conduct Committee during his last five years on the bench. “It’s important for people to know there’s a clearinghouse for complaints,” he said.

Barton remained in the public eye after retirement. “I was the legal analyst for Channel 5 for four or five years,” he recounted. Natalie Jacobson and Chet Curtis were “both wonderful” as co-anchors. The day the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, “I was on the news five times.”

He is on top of current events but said he keeps away from televised trials. Watching from a judge’s perspective, he observed, “I would always be thinking, ‘I would do it this way,’ or ‘I would do that.’”

However, he feels strongly that the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of murdering George Floyd, should have been moved. Jurors may have had reason to fear for their lives if the verdict had been acquittal, he said.

Barton mentioned a couple of high-profile cases at which he presided – Daniel LaPlante, convicted of murdering a mother and two young children in Townsend, and the King Arthur Motel trial, in which two off-duty Everett police officers were convicted of second-degree murder. “The first thing I did was change the venues to get jurors from other towns.”

He is an advocate of the police body camera, comparing it to the role of a court reporter. “They were my protection as a judge,” he said. Whenever he was questioned, his response was, “Check  the transcript.” A camera, he said, is “the best protector in the world.”

Barton also favors some elements of police reform—“better psychological training before they give someone a gun,” as well as “something to disable persons without killing them. But get rid of police? That’s crazy.”

As he settles into his tenth decade, Barton continues to live independently, albeit thanks to the support he receives from friends, neighbors, modern contraptions (a stairlift), and services like Meals on Wheels. He laughs when people ask about his health: “I’m great — from the neck up.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763