Katherine Mader spent two decades as a judge in Los Angeles Criminal Court, before retiring early in 2020. Before that she was the LAPD’s first Inspector General, prosecuted two murder-for-hire trials and served as a defense attorney who convinced a jury to spare the life of the Hillside Strangler. In August of this year, Judge Mader published Inside the Robe: A Judge’s Candid Tale of Criminal Justice in America, which best selling author Michael Connelly called: “a perfect book: engrossing and telling at the same time.” The Judge has granted Crime Story permission to excerpt the entirety of her book over the coming months. This is Part 1.


Author’s Note

Twenty years ago, when I first became a judge, I looked for any book that would help me do my job. Not a book about the nuts and bolts of the law, or a stodgy autobiography describing famous cases a judge presided over, but the human aspects of judging. What does it feel like to transition from attorney to judge?How do I get used to my friends treating me differently? Is judging just about finding the correct law or are there personal or political aspects that come into play? What if I mistakenly release someone who drives drunk again and kills someone? How can a judge avoid getting into trouble? I couldn’t find any book that answered these questions.

I have always been a fan of insider stories such as Anthony Bourdain’s expos. of the restaurant industry in Kitchen Confidential. My favorite explores the potential cognitive errors of doctors in How Doctors Think by Dr. Jerome Groopman. The tell-all genre goes far back, to the notable Ball Four in 1970 by Jim Bouton, a true “inside baseball” reveal, laying bare that sport. I am a very curious person and peering behind closed doors has always fed my nosy nature. 

Avidly searching for a judging book that met my criteria, but never finding it, I decided to write one myself. This is no academic treatise; my intention is to help the general reader pierce the veil of mystery that hangs over the judging profession. To illustrate this murky subject, I’ve described one year on the bench, using anecdotes from my courtroom as well as my life. Yes, judges follow the law as best we can, but as people we are subject to the same frailties, mental errors, and close-mindedness as everyone else. 

I hope that you, my reader, come away from this book with a better understanding of our criminal justice system and the judging profession, which is now under attack from so many sides. It’s an imperfect system, but one, I believe, worthy of admiration. Whether you are interested in true crime, crime novels, or are a student of the law, my book was designed for your reading pleasure, and hopefully, illumination.

Katherine Mader, Los Angeles


Fairness is what justice really is.

—Potter Stewart


Preface

1973

“But it’s not fair to lock up my client!” My twenty-something, high-pitched whine bounced off the wood paneling and acoustic ceiling of the Sacramento, California, courtroom. I stood aghast before a judge in my Laura Ashley paisley dress, with T-strap pumps covering my new nylons.

The grouchy, gray-haired floating head on the bench peered disdainfully at me. His pursing thin, mean lips growled, “Young lady, you might have a bar card, but you’ll learn soon that saying ‘It’s not fair’ makes you sound childish and unprofessional. If you want to make an argument to me, do not ever again use the word ‘fair.’” 

I left his courtroom shaking, not even considering the impact the judge’s chastisement might have had upon my client, one of my first as a public defender. I don’t remember what my client looked like. I just remember feeling silly and young and ashamed of not learning in law school that the word “fair” was verboten in a courtroom argument. 

Forty-five years later, a black robe adorns my own floating head as I sit on the bench of my felony trial courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. I have conscientiously substituted reasonable and equitable and just for the forbidden word “fair” throughout my career since 1973. I’ve even perched on the bench with my frozen brain thinking, “I just paused mid-sentence because I couldn’t think of a substitute word for ‘fair.’”

Why did I follow the Sacramento judge’s condescending instructions so strictly and for so long? After all, the word “fair” is not an obscenity. Isn’t our entire criminal justice system based upon treating all people fairly? The phrase “fundamental fairness” is one of the highest legal standards in the land. “Fair play” is a phrase epitomizing integrity. Perhaps the word fair reminds legal professionals of toddlers screaming, “It’s not fair,” while performing a tantrum in the middle of a crowded Walmart. Or it is the last refuge of true believers who think that self-righteously claiming something is unfai will magically spring a client from custody? Was the judge years ago assuming that I was a true believer?


You can acquire the entirety of Judge Mader’s Inside the Robe: A Judge’s Candid Tale of Criminal Justice in America here.