Justice Mary Ellen Ring, from Norwich, sits on Ireland's high court

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Dublin journalists have continued writing stories mentioning "Ms. Justice Mary Ellen Ring" this month even though Ireland's Woman Lawyer of the Year is vacationing with family and friends in Connecticut.

The 63-year-old Norwich native has been living in Ireland since graduating from Norwich Free Academy with honors in 1973 and returning, with her parents, to the country her ancestors had left in the early 1800s. Her three older brothers stayed in the United States, she said, while she opted to "follow the money." She and her parents traveled to Ireland on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, passing the newly opened twin towers of the World Trade Center as they departed Manhattan.

Ring attended University College Dublin, Dublin Institute of Technology, and King's Inns, Ireland's oldest law school. She became a barrister in 1985.

This past week, she granted an interview with The Day and remarked upon arriving at the Washington Street Coffee House in New London that she was glad to have scheduled the meeting on a rainy day. Ring said she returns each summer to a rented home on Groton Long Point. Back in Dublin, she said, she lives with two cats in a house at the end of a street.

It was obvious, as she sipped coffee and chatted in a light Irish brogue about her remarkable career, that Ring is comfortable with reporters. 

Appointed to the bench in 2012, she presided over criminal matters in Dublin courtrooms where she had practiced for years as a lawyer.

During the interview, she suggested, mischievously, that important matters were scheduled at the very beginning or end of the day, when journalists were less likely to be present. Alternatively, she joked, those matters took place in other courtrooms while reporters gathered in one place for a high profile case.

Her habit of working long hours to get through the daily docket was the subject of a news story in 2013. "Judge causes consternation — by working too hard," reads the headline in the Irish Independent. The same article mentions that Ring "is regarded as compassionate and fair, especially with young offenders."

Ring is comfortable with heads of state, too, as evidenced by her poise, in black business suit and pearls, in published photographs with then President Michael D. Higgins when he elevated her to the country's high court in 2015. One of her current assignments includes serving as chairwoman of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, an independent body that investigates complaints against the country's police force.

The most recent news article about Ring, published Aug. 12 by the Irish Times, describes how, in her role on the police oversight commission, she "threatened to sue the Garda for endless delays in surrendering documents."

She received the Irish Woman's Lawyers' Association's Irish Woman of the Year award in October 2018. The Law Society Gazette of Ireland reported, in a story entitled "Forget glass ceilings, build new houses says judge," that, in accepting the award, Ring quipped, "An honor such as this tends to signify advancing age, but it's a step up from a posthumous award!"

She had practiced criminal law, both as a prosecutor and defense attorney, when it was not the norm for women.

"The myth was that women couldn't do criminal work, but the reality was that people didn't mind if it was a man or woman, as long as the representation was good," Ring said.

Other women lawyers had forged the way, she said, including Mary Robinson, who went on to become the country's president. While practicing law, Robinson had turned up in court in a pantsuit, which was unheard of for a female, according to Ring.

"She continued to show up in a pantsuit, and by the time I got there, women were wearing trousers without comment," Ring said.

Though women lawyers have gained status in criminal and family matters, Ring said they have a way to go when it comes to getting the civil cases that bring big fees.

"The one thing women often do is become self-critical," she said. "If a job requires five components and they have four but are missing one, they say no. If men look and have just one, they say yes."

The most important thing women can do, she said, is keep going. She said the "Me Too" movement is important and that those who want to bring a complaint should do so. Others might not feel able to handle it and should not be criticized, she said. It's most important that they keep going, she said.

"They might just pass he or she (the subject of their potential complaint) along the way," she said.

In October 2018, at the conclusion of a case involving a member of the Garda who had been charged with sexual assault, the investigative commission that Ring chairs issued a press release applauding the bravery of the victim and encouraging others who may want to come forward. The policeman involved had received a two-year sentence.

"We recognise the courage it takes to make a complaint of sexual assault, with the added dimension where the defendant is a member of An Garda Síochána," said the release. "We reiterate that anyone subject to a similar assault who comes to GSOC will be met with sensitivity and professionalism during an investigation. We wish the complainant and her family all the best for the future."

Women bring strengths to the practice of law, including their ability to talk with colleagues about the trauma they witness in cases, Ring said.

"We would talk about it, open up in ways males might not," she said. "Men are getting better at it. You don't leave child abuse in the courtroom and go home to children of the same age."

Ring said being in a position to take somebody's liberty is a huge responsibility.

"I know I was perhaps considered as quite lenient," she said. "But I knew from my years of experience a lot of crimes are connected to substance abuse, and ultimately if people can be out of the criminal justice system, it's better for them, better for society."

She said punishment is part of the equation, but people will only give up their addiction when they're ready. Oftentimes, she said, it's life, not the court system, that rehabilitates. Repeat offenders who returned to her courtroom after years of absence have told her, "I can't jump over the counters like I used to," to commit a robbery, or "I have a girlfriend."

As for deterrence, which is often cited as the third prong of sentencing after punishment and rehabilitation, Ring said it often has no meaning for the people who have so little.

"What are you deterring them from? When you have very little to lose, what's the damage of going to jail? You can't ignore those facts, and they happen everywhere. You have to look at outcomes."

Her humble background contributed to Ring's humane approach.

"My father was a plumber," she said. "He always said, 'Everyone who works is as important as anyone else, and you know that when the cleaners don't clean, or if the coffee isn't hot.'"

Ring started "going" in high school, and has never stopped.

Her NFA class yearbook indicates she was involved with the Girls Athletic Association, Girls Sports Club, Russian Club, Intercultural Committee, Playshop, Student Advisory Board, Finance Board, Senior Activities, and Project Outreach. She received The Mary Sandifer Award for public service, and The Bertha Curland Rosenberg Prize, which was "given annually to a member of the graduating class in recognition of distinguished service to the cause of intercultural understanding."

"Norwich Free Academy is proud of Mary Ellen Ring and is thrilled with her accomplishments," said Geoffrey P. Serra, director of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. "Like many others, she is an outstanding example NFA Alumni who have made, and continue to make, extraordinary contributions to our world."

k.florin@theday.com

 

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