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. You can find previous installments of Inside the Robe here. This is Part 9.
Another judge in the building is trying a child molestation case. Few judges, including me, like trying these cases. It is hard to select juries because many potential jurors have been molested. Understandably, they don’t want to tell their story in front of other jurors, so we need to have a “sidebar” in which the juror comes up to the bench with the attorneys and court reporter and explains why he or she can’t be fair. While this happens, the other jurors stare at us.
I always tell the other jurors, “Please talk among yourselves to avoid overhearing what we are trying to have you not hear.” Sometimes they laugh. Other judges play white noise or music for distraction during sidebar conferences. Often a prospective juror at the sidebar cries, and we search for facial tissue. I’ve had jury panels in which a third of the prospective jurors requested sidebars. In my colleague’s case, a child has accused her stepfather of molestation. The prosecutor, a tall middle-aged woman with a long, old-fashioned pageboy, is known to be good at her job but in need of a “chill pill.” Yesterday, the prosecutor wanted the trial judge to approve her calling a “vagina expert.”
“Your Honor, the defendant in this case had a photo of his stepdaughter’s vagina on his cell phone. I have an expert witness who compared the photo on the cell with a photo of the child’s vagina and will testify that they look alike.” An expert can only be called as a witness if they have information that is beyond a juror’s common knowledge. I have never heard of a “vagina expert.”
The judge said, “Jury members can figure that out themselves. They can compare the photos. There is no need for expert testimony.” Of course, the prosecutor fumed. If she loses the trial, she will blame the judge. As judges always say, “Whenever you make a ruling, you make a temporary friend and a lifelong enemy.”
It is a quiet Friday afternoon after a quiet week. What does a judge do when court is not in session? It depends on whether the judge is assigned to a civil court (seeking money damages) or a criminal court like mine. According to friends who judge family law and civil lawsuits involving money, “We have so much work to do. Not like you folks doing criminal. Every one of our cases involves a different area of law. Our brains get a workout. Sometimes we even have to work all weekend.”
They’re right. It’s different for judges in criminal courtrooms. We have much less paperwork. Many of the motions filed by both sides are repetitive. We may have only one or two motions to review each week. My calendar consists of around seventy pending cases, most of which I’ve seen numerous times. I like to be in trial because the day goes by more quickly.
When judges from both areas get together, we often joke whether criminal law or civil law is a “harder” assignment. My old friend Barry, a civil judge who recently transferred there after a career in criminal, always says, “We have so much more variety than you. We need to know every area of law from landlord/tenant to medical malpractice. You see the same gang shootings all the time. Did the gangster shoot from a car? From the sidewalk? Did he shoot at another gang member? Was an innocent bystander hurt? Blah, blah, blah. How can you do it? It’s so boring. What I do is so much more intellectual.” The criminal judges, including me, say, “Liberty and justice issues are so much more important than pushing pots of money back and forth across a table.”
It’s a silly argument. A judge deciding whether an elderly person was too senile to know they were cutting a child out of a will or figuring out whether a child should be permanently removed from a home is also making life-altering decisions. Also, as judges age, we change. We may find it fascinating at some point to understand criminal law, and also, at a different time, decide that we’ve had enough of it.
I’ve never cared much about money issues, but I’ve also never struggled. My parents worked hard to make sure that I had everything I needed. I held my share of minimum-wage jobs, including sorting apricots at the Del Monte Cannery in San Jose and re-shelving ski sweaters at a sporting goods shop. I am a ninety-five-words-a-minute manuscript typist and worked during college at UCLA Medical Center, typing doctors’ research papers during the early morning hours. Unlike today, jobs were plentiful. Our parents helped us through law school even though Norman and I continued to work. We had only minor debt when we graduated, unlike so many of today’s students. It’s easy to say that money is irrelevant. I’ve never had to suffer from lack of money for basic necessities.
Many judges like to do civil law because when they retire, they can make a lot of money as a private judge. Instead of lawsuits taking several years to go to trial, judges can be hired privately for up to $1,000 per hour to help settle cases. Some judges leave the bench even before retirement age because they know they are good at settling cases. Judges in criminal courts are cut out of the private judging market. There’s no private judging for old criminal judges. I’m a diehard criminal junkie. Online, my eyes immediately go to stories of kidnappings and robberies. I can preside over ten gang murders in a row and find each unique. Sometimes, it’s the challenge of keeping two opposing attorneys from killing each other. Other times, it’s making sure that audience members don’t influence the jury by wearing T-shirts with images of the deceased. There’s always something.
Every two years the judges elect a presiding judge for the entire Los Angeles County court system. That presiding judge then selects the judges who run each of the courthouses. Most years the presiding judges’ election is not controversial. There are “court leaders” whose ascendancy has been planned years in advance.
The system is old-fashioned. After 160 years, the courts in Los Angeles only recently elected their first female presiding judge. Unusually, our last election for presiding judge was contested and a donnybrook. The court divided into factions, and I was fortunate to support the winning candidate.
Many judges are intellectually smart. Others excel at being smart as well as ruthlessly manipulative. Some judges are skilled at sliding the stiletto silently into perceived enemies’ backs. For a few years, I had to pull some deftly inserted spikes out of my own back. Luckily for me, my candidate won, and I got to transfer to downtown Los Angeles shortly after the election several years ago.