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 2.

Near my home is a small, city-owned cemetery. In this cemetery is a large upright granite marker. It bears a photograph of my Aunt Lea, a tall, beautiful woman in the prime of life, her searing dark eyes, so much like my own, riveting the viewer. In her arms is a naked baby. Along with the picture are the engraved names of Lea, her husband

Josef, their three children, and a simple statement of fact: “Murdered in the Holocaust.”

The plot beneath the marker contains no remains, for Aunt Lea, Uncle Josef, and their sons Fritz, Martin, and Simon were probably murdered in Belzec, along with more than 450,000 innocent babies, children, and adults whose only crime was that they were Jews. 

Some afternoons, I rest on a nearby granite bench, the sun shimmering and ocean breezes washing over me, gaze at the memorial, and wonder what the lives of my aunt, uncle, and cousins might have been had they survived. What would they think about being memorialized half a world away from their Eastern Europe home by a niece and family whose existence they never contemplated? 

In my wood-paneled judicial chambers, a small, framed black-and white portrait of Aunt Lea rests atop a bookcase. The mystery of what happened to my relatives, and the fact that the Nazis eradicated an entire branch of my family, hovers over me. Like many children affected by the Holocaust, I feel a weight of responsibility to live an accomplished life. I need to somehow make up for those five unrealized lives and celebrate their existence at the same time. For

many years, I fretted that beyond one photograph, nothing physical existed to prove that Lea’s family had ever walked the earth. That’s why I bought a plot and erected a marker. 

The injustice of it all troubles me. I can’t pinpoint how or when my life became propelled by the pursuit of justice, but it must have coincided with my teenage discovery of the fate of my relatives. Aunt Lea was my father’s sister. I wish I would have been mature enough to pry information from him about what happened to her and her family, but I never did. He likely never would have told me because talking about the Holocaust gave him nightmares. For that same reason, I was never allowed to wear black boots, as they reminded my father of the Nazis and tormented his sleep. In memory of Aunt Lea and her family, I have tried to recognize and call out unfairness. Sometimes I have fixed things; other times I failed.

The details of my personal history and personality shouldn’t make a difference to my performance as a judge, right? Justice is purported to be blind. That’s why Lady Justice wears a blindfold. While blind justice is the ideal, I don’t believe it’s the reality. Judges are not created on 3-D printers. We are each creatures of our family backgrounds, schooling, life experiences, and cultural as well as political preferences. “Following the law” can produce wildly different results from judge to judge. Our job requires us to separate our political and personal selves from each decision. 

I perform this vital task more successfully on some days than others. 

The judging profession remains a mystery to most of the public. It’s a messy, imperfect system but, I believe, worthy of admiration. There is a strong sense of honor and integrity among most of the players. A reverence for the rule of law and fair dealing permeates the process. In my experience, jurors are wise and often selfless with their time. They usually get it right. However, judges, integral to the process, present an enigma to the outside world. Who are the people inside those robes? How did they become judges? Did they have to know someone? Do judges have to be brilliant? Compassionate? Fair?

Come with me behind the scenes of my courthouse for a calendar year. You will see the liveliness, camaraderie, as well as the daily frustrations among my staff, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, the highs and lows of jury trials, and my friendships and relationships with fellow judges.

Fortunately, I have never faced an attorney who whined, “It’s not fair.” Would I respond as dismissively as the judge I faced forty-five years ago? I hope not, but I’m not sure. I rarely hear the word “fair” spoken by attorneys. Perhaps their law school curriculum was more thorough than mine.

The architecture of the central criminal court in downtown Los Angeles, built in 1972 in Soviet cement-block style, is―to be charitable―forgettable. My courthouse is known for water leakage, asbestos problems, overused, slow, malfunctioning and crowded elevators, and the potential to collapse during a very strong  earthquake. Yet many Los Angeles County judges jockey for a courtroom in the building, believing it to be the epicenter of the criminal justice universe in Los Angeles. I was one of them. I wanted to be in the center of the action, to demonstrate my abilities, and to work among some of the best judges and advocates in the county. It took me twelve years to land a felony courtroom downtown.

Los Angeles County has thirty-eight courthouses spread throughout its 4,084 square miles. While I tried to convince myself that I had more freedom and serenity in a satellite court fifteen miles from downtown, I always hankered to move here. It felt like home, after my having practiced downtown as a defense attorney and a prosecutor. I wanted to work in the building with the ugly edifice and broken-down amenities.

DTLA (Downtown Los Angeles) is in the midst of gentrification, and while the urine smell of homeless encampments still dots the sidewalks, I spend my lunch hours walking to food trucks, farmers’ markets, bookstores, and bodegas. The plaza behind my building is regularly filled with political and labor demonstrations as well as lunchtime soccer matches. Unlike being a judge in a quiet branch court tucked onto cheap land adjoining freeways, I am surrounded by an expanse of entertaining chaos.

Perks are a staple of a judge’s life. They came as a surprise to me. My parking is directly below my chambers, and an assigned parking space behind security gates waits for me every morning. A woodpaneled elevator whisks me from the parking lot to my eleventh-floor chambers.

Before I became a judge, I didn’t know there were wood-paneled elevators in the building. At first, I felt embarrassed with my posh surroundings, as though I didn’t belong in them. Some judges come from prestigious law firms with plush offices. Government lawyers like me never enjoyed these types of amenities. However, after sixteen years, spacious wood-paneled elevators and a private parking space would be difficult to give up.

My chambers contain a large wooden institutional desk, beige tweed sofa with matching armchairs, and a round conference table with seating for five. Some judges lug their ornate, engraved desks from their former law offices to their chambers, but I had nothing to bring.

My heart quickens as the Los Angeles skyline comes into view each morning. I love working here. There’s something about downtown that can’t be replicated. Our judges’ camaraderie fosters the same communal spirit as media correspondents in a war zone.

Many of the most notorious crimes in Los Angeles were tried in the sixty downtown courtrooms, including the cases of O.J. Simpson and the “Grim Sleeper.” Daily, the courtrooms are filled with trials for gang shootings, robberies, and serious sexual assaults. All judges and staff know that anything can and has happened: a bomb threat, an inmate slashing an attorney with a hidden razor blade, a defendant feigning a heart attack in the middle of a trial, and fights between rival gangs in the courtroom or hallways.

When I transferred here three years ago, many judges were busy trying back-to-back narcotics sales cases, part of a major effort to clean up drug trafficking downtown. I was warned many times that trying such drug cases would become tedious: “Be careful what you wish for.” My colleagues in the branch court each had their personal reasons for staying put. In contrast, I wished to come downtown. I have no regrets.

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

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