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The Honorable Wilbur Edwards: Public Service and Giving Back Later in His Career

Stephen Seckler


  • The honorable Wilbur Edward's childhood was shaped by military life, fostering a sense of community service and diversity.
  • He transitioned from a successful real estate career to law, dedicating almost two decades as a judge.
  • Post-retirement, he actively contributes to the legal community through mentoring and pro bono work.
The Honorable Wilbur Edwards: Public Service and Giving Back Later in His Career

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I recently sat down with The Honorable Wilbur Edwards (ret.) of the Massachusetts Housing Court. Judge Edwards talked about his early childhood overseas, his parent’s commitment to public service, his own path to public service, and how he now gets meaning from his volunteer activities.

Early Life

As a child in the 1950s, Judge Edwards grew up in two worlds. He was the son of an Army officer who had spent World War II in an elite unit disarming explosive ordnance. As a child in a military family, Judge Edwards lived on various military bases and on one of the largest NATO military bases in Germany.

While the U.S. Army was still integrating at that time, Judge Edwards’s family lived in diverse communities where he met military families from all over the world (“you lived with people, regardless of their race or ethnicity, right next door”). Back in the United States, Judge Edwards lived with him family in a town called Coraopolis in Western Pennsylvania. While the schools in Coraopolis were also integrated, housing in Coraopolis was segregated.

Being raised in a military family instilled in Judge Edwards a strong sense of community service. He also developed a lifelong commitment of giving back from his mother, who was active in their church. In addition, his father was a trustee at the church and involved in local politics and served on the school committee. His parents also got involved in Head Start when it was first getting up and running in Western Pennsylvania.

Living on army bases taught Judge Edwards how to make friends quickly. It was a place that everyone was dropped into with no roots other than the base. Judge Edwards credits that experience with giving him the tools he needed to be successful in real estate. He also credits his parents for giving him great educational opportunities and making sure that he wasn’t put on a vocational track, as was the case for many African American children in that era.

The Vietnam War Era was Not a Time to Join the Military

Judge Edwards attended Harvard University in the late 1960s and as he was graduating in 1971, the Vietnam War was still raging; but he had a high draft number and given how he felt about that war, he decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he began a career in real estate on a fluke, working for the supermarket chain Purity Supreme in Massachusetts.

At the time, the chain was opening up a lot of convenience stores and needed someone to find the sites and get the stores built.

Judge Edwards discovered he had a knack for siting retail stores. Having grown up in many different places gave Judge Edwards the skill of quickly getting used to a new community and learning what he needed to know about that community. He was accustomed to traveling, and he had a good sense of where to locate new stores. Over time he worked for Grand Union, another supermarket chain, and then Toys ‘R Us, siting stores in other parts of the country doing similar work.

Doing this work exposed Judge Edwards to a lot of attorneys. There were leasing and zoning issues and the purchase of commercial properties. He liked the lawyers he met, and eventually decided that the best way to advance his career was to become a lawyer himself. After graduating from law school at Boston College, he worked for a number of years at Roche, Carens & DeGiacomo, a Boston law firm. Eventually, he formed his own firm with one partner.

As a lawyer in private practice, Judge Edwards handled all aspects of commercial and residential real estate, affordable housing, construction law and real estate title.

A Move to Public Service

After almost 20 years in practice and approaching the age of 50, Judge Edwards decided it was time to give back to the community and applied to be a judge in the Southeast Housing Court of Massachusetts. For the next 16 years, he conducted bench and jury trials involving landlord-tenant disputes, zoning issues, and sanitary and building code violations. During that time, he served on a number of Trial Court Committees and was President of the Massachusetts Black Judges Conference.

One of the skills that Judge Edward cultivated while on the court was making all of the parties feel like someone was listening to them. In housing court, the majority of landlords and the overwhelming majority of tenants are without legal counsel. He mentioned to me how losing the roof over your head is as bad as starving; but he also understood that there were landlords who weren’t getting a fair shot because the tenant was abusing the law. He also became good at getting the parties to talk to each other and to try to resolve cases amicably.

I asked Judge Edwards if he could recount any funny stories about his time in the Housing Court. With little prompting, he told me a crazy story about an eviction case involving a tenant being evicted for nonpayment of rent. Apparently there was a rodent problem in the unit and the tenant was claiming that the landlord had breached the implied warranty of habitability.

To prove the point, the tenant’s lawyer showed up with a lunchbox filled with frozen mice. Each mouse had an attached post-it with the date of its capture The lawyer proceeded to examine the tenant asking him to identify each mouse. The case presented some sanitary challenges because the judge couldn’t allow dead mice to be kept in the evidence locker and they weren’t going to refreeze them. So instead, the mice were photographed.

Retiring in 2018 and Continuing to Give Back

Since his retirement from the bench in 2018, Judge Edwards has remained an active member of the legal community. In 2019, he was appointed to serve on the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission which hears cases regarding alleged violations of the state conflict of interest laws.

He now spends a lot of time serving as a mentor through the Lawyers Clearinghouse Access to Justice Fellows Program. The program works with senior lawyers who want to make a meaningful contribution to the delivery of civil legal services to underserved communities in Massachusetts. The program connects these senior lawyers with nonprofit organizations where the senior lawyer can do important pro bono work.

Through the Access to Justice Fellows Program, Judge Edwards mentors recent graduates of the University of Massachusetts School of Law. The school has an incubator program to help young lawyers serve “modest-income clients” who might not meet the eligibility requirements for legal aid.

To Judge Edwards, this program provides an important training ground to teach new lawyers how to set up and run a practice. From his perspective, attorneys coming out of law school now are not getting the same training and mentoring that he received.

Judge Edwards was drawn to the program because over the years on the bench, he saw a notable decline in civility in the way lawyers were treating each other. By serving as a mentor early in a lawyer’s career, he feels like he has a chance to shape the behavior of these lawyers. And the clients receive reduced-fee legal services.

He is thankful that he had left the bench prior to the COVID pandemic. Trying a case over Zoom is not ideal. He commented that he relied a lot on body language to assess the veracity of the witnesses who were appearing before him and that is hard to do in a virtual environment. But now he mentors students in the incubator on how to effectively appear in court on Zoom.

Judge Edwards gets a lot of meaning from the pro bono work he does through the Access to Justice Fellows program. He also remains an active contributor to a number of other nonprofit organizations.