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 20.
Today, I was sent an armed robbery trial. The defendant has a huge and violent record and faces a potential maximum sentence of thirty six years to life. However, after Cora spoke with the victim, whom she met today for the first time, she said, “I’m not sure what’s going on. The victim insists the robbery happened at 9:00 p.m. The police report says it was reported at 11:00 p.m. I have no idea what happened during this two-hour gap. I’m going to reduce my offer to nine years in state prison.”
Trials are often assigned to prosecutors at the last minute. Preparation is inadequate, and on the day of trial, Cora learned of the discrepancy for the first time. The defendant grabbed the nine-year offer and another trial went away. I am again faced with another day or two of waiting for another trial to be sent to me and wonder whether I’d be happier in a busier assignment. I spoke today with a friend who recently transferred from criminal to probate judging. Probate court deals with assets and debts left behind when someone dies. It has the reputation of being deadly dull, but judges in probate insist that it’s more interesting than criminal court because there are no juries and the judge makes all the decisions.
As my friend said, “Nothing beats figuring out whether an eightynine-year-old decedent with a $200 million estate should have his estate mainly go to his children, or for $130 million to go to his fortyyear-old widow who married the decedent when he was eighty-two.”
During the lunch break, I went to a seminar for judges on “Decisional Fatigue” and stress. It is a common subject for judges to jaw about. I’m more stressed by having too much dead time when I’m not in trial. Yet, there are invisible stressors that all judges face.
Articles have been written about the psychological stress involved in the transition from attorney to judge. According to a Dr. Isaiah Zimmerman, a clinical psychologist who specializes in “judicial stress management,” there are many comments he hears over and over again from judges such as: “Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning of how isolating it would be.” “Except with close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.” “The isolation is gradual. Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with them as before.” “When you become a judge, you lose your first name.” “Your circle of friends becomes much smaller.” “After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”
I agree that it is easy to slide into a monastic existence. I can travel the few steps between my chambers and the courtroom and leave at night without seeing other colleagues. Some judges, often introverts, prefer to be isolated at work and even close their chambers doors during the day. That’s not me. I like hustle and bustle and being part of the action.
According to Dr. Zimmerman, many judges report that “appearance” is the most difficult issue. We are supposed to be vigilant and maintain an appropriate distance and demeanor at social and bar gatherings. I used to wear sweats and not comb my hair on weekends while making a quick trip to the grocery store. After I became a judge, I realized that I was running into people in the community who might tell others that, “I ran into Judge Mader at Vons. She is such a slob.” I now pay more attention to my appearance when I go out.
Thankfully, I have friends on the outside who are not lawyers, and they keep me grounded. And I have Norman and my children telling me to stop acting like a judge and bossing them around when I get home. My children said I should order a custom license plate: “JDGMNTL.”
In the beginning, becoming a judge is exciting. Everyone is so nice to judges. According to Dr. Zimmerman, “The subculture of the courthouse reinforces the new identity through the powerful symbolism of the robing ceremony and constant deferential behavior. Slowly, former colleagues begin to pull away from the judge and act with more formality toward him or her. Friends, relatives, and neighbors also acknowledge the rise in status and continually display heightened respect and deferential behavior.”
I try to avoid telling people whom I meet at parties that I am a judge because their behavior toward me noticeably changes. The questioning begins: “What do you do?” I say: “I work in the criminal justice system. And what about you? How do you spend your time? And what does your family consist of?” Most people don’t recognize that the topic has been switched, and rarely return to ask me more about my work. As a woman “of a certain age,” some assume that I can’t possibly have an occupation that would interest them.
When I hear from people whom I haven’t heard from in a long time, it’s often because they want a favor or advice. Sometimes I engage in meandering telephone calls with old friends, and it’s not until the end of the call that the true reason for the call emerges such as, “By the way, I was just called for jury duty and I can’t do it because I’m so busy at work. Can you help me re-schedule? Or, can you give me some good ideas how to get out of serving when I go to court?” I’ve learned how to politely but firmly say “No” and still keep a friend.