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 19.
Michael, my judicial assistant, and I shared a laugh this morning. “It’s the end of the month and I still have no ‘stat’ to show that I did a jury trial,” I said. “It’s crazy that we don’t get credit for settling trials, like the two murder trials I settled this month.”
The only way you can get a stat for a jury trial is to begin the trial, swear in the jury panel, and then settle it. If you settle the trial before you swear in the jury, it doesn’t count. I’ve heard that some judges, knowing a case will be settled, will still swear in the jury before taking the guilty plea, just to get a stat. I’ve never done it, but it’s tempting. Jury trials are not the only stat collected by court management. Judges are also supposed to quickly handle cases assigned to them and not give attorneys endless continuances. Some attorneys will never conclude a case unless they are pushed along by a judge, especially if their client is not in custody.
Some judges are more efficient than others. Whether a new judge can “do volume” or “move the meat” are yardsticks to measure productivity. Whenever I hear those phrases, I think of the I Love Lucy episode when she was graded by her supervisor as she tried to sort chocolates careening down a conveyor belt. After she gets the hang of it, the supervisor cranks up the speed of the belt, and, before long, Lucy is stuffing chocolates everywhere, from her mouth to her hat to her apron just to keep up with the flow. Judges who are good at “doing volume” are prized, just like good chocolate sorters.
We each have different brain speeds and operating procedures. Some judges like to ruminate. Some are better at making quick decisions. We all have the same number of cases assigned to us. What happens if a judge can’t get through the work or accumulates an inordinately large backlog? Usually nothing. Once a judge is in an assignment, they are unlikely to be moved.
What if one side, either the prosecutor or the public defender’s office, decides to disqualify a judge from hearing every single one of their criminal cases? That rarely happens, but when it does, it can result in a judge being driven out of a courthouse.
Whenever I’m disqualified, my brain always goes to the worst-case scenario: What if Rob directs that all his prosecutors disqualify me on everything? Would my supervising judge fight for me? Would he keep me here, in the assignment I love? Or would he invent a phony reason to send me to another courthouse, claiming, “The supervisor in Lancaster told me she could use your expertise. Would you mind transferring there for the good of the court? We’ll try to get you back, closer to home, as soon as we can.” By the time a couple of years pass, however, there will be a new supervising judge, and no one will remember the promise or my sacrifice.
There are few courts a judge can oversee in a courthouse that don’t involve jury trials. If a judge is viewed as industrious and the disqualifications seen as vindictive or petty, it’s a judge’s decision to leave an assignment. Yet, I am reminded of the words of a former supervising judge when I first joined the bench: “I consider someone a good judge if they are competent, pleasant, and both sides will go to them.” Using that standard, I feel less than competent when one side disqualifies me. I try to think of the old Chinese proverb: “If you sit by the bank of the river long enough, the bodies of all your enemies will come floating by.” I plan to sit by the bank of this river a long time.