Approaching the Bench

Judge John Payne ’75 was drawn to public service from the moment he began considering a professional career, though the path to becoming the First Justice of the Springfield District Court would take some time to come into focus.

Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, Payne did not see the need to look too far afield when it came time to choose a college. “AIC was a good choice for me. It made sense at the time to attend college as a commuter,” Payne recalled. “I had some very good professors at AIC, and what I learned there has helped me enormously over the years. It was an opportunity to mature and learn to take advantage of what a good education can do for you.”

At AIC, Payne studied political science, and after completing his law degree at Western New England University School of Law, the young attorney soon faced his own trial by fire, one that paid dividends down the road. As the assistant district attorney for Hampden County, he was in court working cases on a regular basis. “If you are in private practice, your ability to try cases can be somewhat limited,” Payne explained. “In the district attorney’s office, I had the chance to get into court and prosecute cases in front of juries and do evidentiary hearings. It was a steep learning curve and a tremendous experience for me.”

Payne split his career for the next two decades between public service and private practice, and he eventually became interested in donning the robe. “In Massachusetts, the district court is really a community court, where as a judge you are dealing with a variety of cases every day, criminal and civil. I thought it would be interesting,” Payne said. “After 20 years as an attorney I decided to give it a shot.” Payne was soon nominated by the governor’s office for a judgeship, and in 2001 he was appointed associate justice for the Chicopee District Court.

Payne’s job demands a flexible intellect, with a capacity to change gears rapidly to deal with the necessities of diverse cases. “You never really know what’s going to come at you until you get to court. If someone was arrested last night, they may be in front of me the next day for an arraignment. I might handle a pretrial conference, a restraining order, an eviction, then a civil case,” Payne said. “You have to be alert to who and what is in front of you, and try to get the nuance of each case, because there may well be underlying issues that you don’t see right away.”

Sometimes it takes a bit of detective work from the bench to probe the subtleties of the facts and stories presented, to unearth important context for the case. “What is the defense looking for and what is the commonwealth looking for? What is the background of this individual? Am I being told everything I need to know?” Payne said. “It’s a challenge, but it can be very satisfying when you feel you’ve made decisions that are proper and just.”

By Chris Quirk :: Photo by Leon Nguyen ’16