Saturday, April 30, 2011

THIS Person is a Judge?

Most people don't expect to stand in front of someone in black robes, frowning at them from behind a high dias, issuing orders and judgments that will affect them for the rest of their lives. No, that's for criminals, they think, and criminals usually get what's coming to them. Normal people don't have judges intruding into their lives, pontificating on every move they've made in recent (and even in not-so-recent memory), determining whether to reward, punish or restrict them in the future. Right?

Okay, so you suspect I'm about to talk about divorces and custody wars, where judges become an integral part of a "normal person's" life for a few months, or a few years, and their decisions can wreck havoc on a family for decades.

But what I really want to talk about it...who the hell are these people? The judges who are making these life-changing decisions?

Lawyers get accused all the time of being "in bed" with judges - We are the largest contributors to their election campaigns, which we often run. We appear in front of the same judges over and over, year after year, so we don't want to offend them in one case and have them take it out on us in another. We generally run in the same social circles, or at least the same professional ones. Does any intelligent lawyer want to offend a judge given these circumstances? Of course not.

But that doesn't mean we have to like or even respect all of them. There are those judges - far too few - who were really solid lawyers before they "ascended" to the bench. Smart, intellectually nimble, savvy to the ways of the world, and, most of all, ready, willing and able to do justice- which is what judges are supposed to do, using the law to accomplish that goal. These judges actually wanted to become judges to facilitate justice, and they never, ever grow tired of it. They love the law, they don't burn out.

What about the rest of them? Well, in New York, as in many of other states, our State and local judges are elected. Most voters don't have the slightest clue of who the judicial candidates are come Election Day, other than their party affiliation, when they pull the lever.

Does being a female Democrat translate to being a liberal feminist judge? How about a black Republican male - conservative, law-and-order kind of guy? Nope. All that party affiliation usually means is that was the party where that particular judicial candidate had an opening - a friend willing to push for him/her, favors were owed, there was no one else willing to run on that ticket...You get the idea. Judges appointed by governors and other elected officials? Pretty much the same thing.

If we're lucky, the judge turns out to be intelligent, fair and open-minded. After that, we're looking at the many degrees of indifference, stupidity, dogmatism and rigidity that separate fair to mediocre to downright atrocious judges, not necessariy by bright lines, either.

And so we're stuck swallowing our bile as we call that collection of judicial disgraces "Your Honor." We hope they don't destroy our clients' lives too much, because most people lack the stomach or the money to endure an appeal of a horrific judicial decision. And we hope they will someday be on the receiving end of decisions as atrocious as the ones they're doling out, or be kicked off the bench for some crime or act of egregious misconduct before the next election cycle rolls around.


  1. Hmmmmmm....good point, Terri. In my short tenure as an attorney in New York I often wondered about this. I often wondered how many judges honestly understood the impact of some of these decisions they make, whether they even cared some of them. Brave of you to point these things out.
    Jeannie Goldstein
    Divorce Saloon

  2. Feeling fearless, Jeannie! :<)