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 11.
A judge, judicial assistant (clerk), bailiff, and court reporter form a tight unit. Imagine spending six hours a day for years with the same people, often in the same room, during extremely tense and contentious trials. Many court staffs have been with their judge for decades. We get protective of one another, like real families. Sometimes Julie, my bailiff, will bring coffee and sweets; Liz, my court reporter, is a rabid Dodgers fan, often wears baseball memorabilia, and rushes from the courtroom to see her favorite team play at nearby Chavez Ravine.
At the same time, there’s a ritual formality throughout the court system. Court staff will never call their judge by first name, but they expect to be called by their first name only—even after knowing each other for decades. Sometimes, if we go out for lunch, I can avoid being called “Your Honor.” In becoming a judge, that was one of the hardest things to get used to. Everyone acts extremely deferential and even nervous when they’re speaking with a judge.
Staff, no matter how close, do not want to give their judge bad news. Similar to the judges’ pipeline in which attorneys’ quirks and foibles are dissected in the lunchroom, staff also know current gossip. They know who is being viewed with disfavor and who is being transferred to a less desirable assignment long before their judges learn the same facts. Yet staff will not volunteer information unless asked.
Some judges don’t want staff to tell them what they’re doing wrong. Judges forget that staff have been watching the same types of cases for so long that sometimes they know the rules of hearsay better than their judges do. I need my staff to let me know if I’m being irritable or making a thoughtless decision.
Without competent staff, judges could not function. A well coordinated staff works as smoothly as surgeons and nurses in an operating room. We are not handing scalpels and sponges to each other, but we are highly attuned to each other’s needs. If someone is in front of me whom I am going to take into custody, I know that the bailiff assigned to my courtroom likes to stand behind the defendant and slip on handcuffs before the detainee grasps what’s happening. When I glance at Julie in a certain way, she knows I’m going to need her. That makes it safer for all of us.
Judges are the supervisors of the staff and are responsible for their conduct. That creates awkwardness. Staff can make or break a judge, too. There are judicial assistants who input information carelessly into the computer or are nasty to attorneys or litigants. Staff often mirror their judge’s personality. If a judge is rude and demeaning, the staff behaves similarly toward courtroom visitors, including defendants. Some judges are known for being bossy and condescending toward staff, such as demanding that their water pitcher be filled every morning. Likewise, if a judge is helpful and kind, the staff will appreciate working in that court and they will reflect the judge’s values to visitors.
I’ve been lucky with my staff. I’m loyal to them, and I believe they are loyal in return. I wish my bailiff, at her request, wasn’t transferring to patrol. It’s hard to find someone who can convey authority to the defendants as well as not be too heavy-handed in asserting dominance. If bailiffs, either male or female, are too aggressive toward male inmates, the prisoners will respond in kind and we might have an unnecessary dust-up.
No trials today. A check of our court computer shows that there were many open courts, but only three trials. It may seem like judges like me are not working hard enough because our afternoons are free to do “chambers work,” but on many occasions all of us are in trial. We may even have one jury deliberating in the jury room, and another new jury to select in the courtroom.
It’s not that I haven’t had my own criticisms about the distribution of work among the courthouses. The downtown criminal court has many more trials than the branch courts. Each courthouse has a mixture of mass courts where a hundred or more defendants are handled by one judge. Those cases usually involve misdemeanors such as driving under the influence of alcohol or petty theft. There may be other courtrooms in the same courthouse where judges have much less to do. It is difficult to create a system in which each judge has the same amount of work.
When I was in a branch courthouse, my site judge always complained to the downtown supervising judges: “Do not send my judges any more trials to do. We are all drowning.” This was often a bluff. When the downtown supervisors called and asked whether a courtroom was open for a trial to be transferred, my site judge would always say, “No, we’re swamped.” After a while, downtown stopped asking. This happened despite the fact that some judges, including me, wanted to accept the trials from downtown. One judge from my branch court complained about our lack of work to a downtown supervisor. That was a huge blunder.
The next judges’ meeting at our branch court was tense. Our head judge announced, “We have a traitor in our midst. Someone in this room told the supervising judge that we don’t work hard enough around here.” Silence followed, after which my buddy acknowledged that he had the incriminating conversation. One judge in the room who supported the site judge exploded with anger at my friend and then at me when I opined aloud that we needed more work.
My friend and I were failures at understanding bureaucratic politics. The site judge at our courthouse spread the word that we were not team players but troublemakers. Team players, I’ve learned, keep their mouths shut, even if they see things that are wrong. I’m not good at that. Looking back, my buddy and I had the ammunition to wound the enemy but not to kill him. He came back stronger to fight another day. My friend and I were ostracized for years until management downtown turned over. I did learn an important lesson: No one cares whether satellite courthouses are running well so long as they don’t bother anyone. Keep problems in-house, and you will be known as a good manager.