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 16.
My buddy judge came to see me this morning to see if I could handle her cases. “I’m totally in a bind,” she began. “I’ve been sent a trial in which the out-of-custody defendant is out of custody, but on kidney dialysis. He can only come to trial three days a week. In addition to everything else, he is using only public transportation, which broke down last week, and he didn’t even get here. The jury is going crazy.”
Judicial supervisors decided that my buddy’s court should be in session during the morning from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in order for the defendant to get to his dialysis. I need to handle my own cases as well as hers. Usually the buddy court is your next-door neighbor. Sometimes we get along well with a neighbor; sometimes we can’t stand their barking dog or loud parties. The same can happen with buddy courts.
One of my morning cases involved a theft of over a $1 million from a 101-year-old woman. The thief was her middle-aged caretaker. Over a period of years, the caretaker looted her patient’s estate. She cashed in the victim’s life insurance proceeds. She had the victim sign blank checks drawn on the victim’s personal bank account, then filled in her own name as the recipient of amounts up to $150,000. The defendant also applied for an ATM card connected to a joint checking account with the victim. The caretaker then used the contents of that account to build a house in Mexico.
The defendant was originally charged with eighteen counts of grand theft and could have faced around fifteen years in state prison. She had the money to hire a good (and expensive) criminal defense attorney. He argued, “Since all of these counts involve theft from the same victim, why shouldn’t they all be consolidated into just one large count of grand theft?” That was a legal issue I would explore over the ensuing months.
When I first began as a judge, I worried that I needed to come down in the middle for each side to like me. That was a fallacy, but it took years of hearing criticism from trusted attorney pals that I was too eager to compromise and not decisive enough on the bench to change my behavior. Now I can see that sometimes making a decision, even one that will make one side unhappy, is what a judge must do. It even increases respect for a judge.
I was also too worried about getting reversed by a higher court. No judge wants to have their legal rulings reversed. Judges who are frequently reversed on appeal create competency questions in the minds of attorneys who appear before them, as well as fellow judges. We all can joke with a colleague, “Oh, you got reversed again by that crazy panel of appellate justices,” but it’s a nervous joke. It hurts to get reversed. The higher court is saying that a judge got something wrong.
I get angry when politicians use buzz phrases to appeal to a public that doesn’t understand nuanced issues. “We just want judges who follow the law,” they often say. What is that supposed to mean? Unfairly twisting the justice system to serve political ends makes me nauseous. After working all sides for so many years, I feel protective of my colleagues. I have not met any trial judges who try to “make law.” To the contrary, we’re afraid of not following the law precisely and later getting our decisions reversed.