A Class Act

By Emily Gold Boutilier / March / April 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Schooled in both science and law, Rhode Island Supreme Court justice Victoria Lederberg once said that her psychology background helped her understand human behavior while her legal training taught her how to direct it. Lederberg died December 29 of a massive heart attack at her home in Providence. She was sixty-five.

Raised in a tenement, she was a Pembroke senior when she married Seymour Lederberg, who was then a young biology professor at Brown. After earning a master’s in biology and a doctorate in psychology, she joined the faculty of Rhode Island College in 1968. In 1974, while a law student at Suffolk University in Boston, Lederberg won her first election to the Rhode Island House of Representatives. She received her law degree two years later, finishing the part-time program a year early, and joined the Providence firm of Licht and Semonoff a short time later.

Lederberg served in the House for eight years and then in the state Senate for six. She sponsored conflict-of-interest and open-meetings legislation and campaigned for increased state funding to local schools. In 1978 she submitted a bill to allow women to legally retain their maiden names after marriage. Four years later she raised eyebrows during an unsuccessful bid for secretary of state by including both her maiden and married names on the ballot, a move some saw as an attempt to capitalize on her Italian-American heritage.

Since Lederberg had never practiced law full-time—in fact, she’d never tried a case before a court—many opposed her 1993 election to the high court. The legislature elected Supreme Court justices back then, and when Lederberg, who also worked as a part-time municipal court judge, was chosen, critics blasted the selection of a longtime legislator as an exercise in insider politics. But with time Lederberg won over even her sharpest critics. “We, and everyone else who questioned her selection to the high court, were wrong,” wrote two Providence Phoenix columnists after her death. “Because she was a brilliant scholar, she took to appellate work like a duck to water.… Victoria Lederberg was a class act all the way.”

Always willing to take on an assignment, to pore over briefs and transcripts, or to head a subcommittee, “she carried more than her share of the load,” says Chief Justice Frank J. Williams. “This,” he adds, “is how you win over critics: dealing with grace when it comes to tedium—and much of the law can be tedious.”

Lederberg was known for her thorough scrutiny of the facts of the law. “She was intense and studious,” Williams says, “and contributed greatly to our conferences, deliberations, and opinions.” Lederberg’s background helped particularly in cases involving education and science. She wrote a comprehensive decision establishing a standard for accepting expert scientific testimony in court—Williams says the U.S. Supreme Court essentially adopted her standard. Lederberg also had a lighter side. “Many people don’t realize,” he says, “that beneath a somewhat serious demeanor she had this very wry sense of humor.”

A trustee emerita at Brown, Lederberg was a former member of the BAM board of editors and was selected by the BAM as one of the 100 alumni who had the greatest impact on the 20th century (see November/December 2000). In 1979 President Carter appointed her to chair the Federal Advisory Panel on Financing Elementary and Secondary Education. She also served on many local boards.

Flags at state courthouses flew at half-staff in her memory. Lederberg is survived by her husband, a professor emeritus of biology who can be reached at 190 Slater Ave., Providence 02906; a daughter, Sarah Lederberg Stone ’88; a son; a daughter-in-law, Michele Lichtenstein Lederberg ’88; six grandchildren; and a brother, Richard ’62, ’64 Sc.M.

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March / April 2003