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 37.
Returning at 1:00 a.m. after a delayed flight from a visit to North Carolina, I set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. instead of the usual 5:30. For years, I’ve worried that if I am not fully alert, I’ll make a mistake that will negatively impact someone’s life. Do surgeons also worry about letting a knife slip after a bad night’s sleep?
A few years ago, I went to a behavioral therapist who specialized in insomnia. After listing all the disastrous consequences I thought would befall me if I didn’t get enough sleep, I reported: “If I don’t get enough sleep, I will get sick often. If I take too much time off, supervising judges will think I’m faking illness. My colleagues and the attorneys appearing before me will believe that my thinking is slow and erratic. They will spread stories that Judge Mader is slipping a step. They’d wonder if I was getting senile. They’d disqualify me from hearing their trials. I’d have to change assignments.”
The therapist asked me, “How long have you had these concerns?”
“About thirty years.”
“During this time, have you ever been confronted by a colleague or litigant expressing that you seemed ‘off’?”
“During this same period of time, were you the LAPD inspector general and did you later win an election for judge in a contested election?”
“It sure doesn’t seem like your lack of sleep has negatively affected your career.”
In a movie, this is when the trumpets blare and triumphant music signals a breakthrough. Rationally, my therapist was right. He suggested I replace negative sleep thoughts with positive ones to repeat as a mantra during the night: “No one ever died from a lack of sleep. Lack of sleep has never affected my career.” I do feel much calmer now when I don’t sleep well.
It has long been a point of pride that I never call in sick to work. When I was a little girl, I won an award in elementary school for having the fewest absences. My mother was a school nurse and relished telling me stories about children pretending to be sick who appeared in her nurse’s office. My mother even patrolled the streets like a truant officer looking for kids playing hooky. I recently spoke to one of her old school colleagues who told me how the other teachers thought my mother’s fixation on getting children to come to school was hilarious. Not to me. When I was sick, she made me stay in bed all day, with no television. I ended up wanting to get better and return to school as quickly as possible.
Most judges will drag themselves into work to do their morning calendar, even if they return home to a sickbed when the calendar is finished. The problem is just as acute if a judge takes ill in the middle of a jury trial. Sometimes I have a courtroom of sixty prospective jurors, many of whom have taken off from work or closed their small businesses. If I don’t come to court, all of them will be sent home and told to return the next day. It’s hard to justify inconveniencing so many people. I did it only once, when I rose from bed so dizzy that I couldn’t drive.
Not inconveniencing people is another trait adopted from my Grandpa Hans. He lived with my mother and father and me during my entire childhood, and I can hear him responding to many inquiries over the years, “Don’t worry, I don’t want to inconvenience you.” He was passive, most likely always aware that he was a guest in my parents’ home. Passivity is not a trait I’ve inherited. Quite the opposite. Nonetheless, I don’t want to bother people.
Today I’m well-rested, but since this is the week before Easter break, the courts are slow. It’s a good day to explore my evolution into a criminal court judge. I have never had psychotherapy. My perceptions of how and why I became who I am are merely my suppositions.
An only child, I was over-protected and indulged. My father was a chemist with a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. He escaped to Switzerland after the Nazis took over Austria, and remained there for several years, desperately writing to people all over the world requesting sponsorship to come to their country. Finally, he was sponsored to come to America, and became the first chief smog scientist at the Air Pollution Control District in Los Angeles. In the early 1950s, Los Angeles air was yellow/gray with what is now called “smog.” At the time, however, no one knew what was making the air dirty and why people had trouble breathing.
My mother, an only child, came from Hamburg, Germany, and attended high school in the United States. She always told me that the opportunities for Jews in Germany were diminishing and her dream to become a doctor was thwarted. In Los Angeles, she became a public health nurse and was always bitter about her lost career as a physician. Paradoxically, she also said she became a school nurse because she hated the sight of blood. How could she have made it through medical school? Her father was my dear Grandpa Hans. My parents were strict about my sleeping eight hours a night, not riding my bike in the street, and practicing the piano for one hour a day. Like many Jewish children of European refugees, my rebellions went only so far, as I didn’t want my parents to worry about me. I was told often that they had terrible experiences during World War II, too terrible to talk about, and I always felt guilty adding to their problems by being a difficult child. That didn’t mean I didn’t rebel. My most significant rebellion involved the piano. My parents liked me to play classical music on the piano for their friends, a European tradition. No matter how many times I explained that this wasn’t common in America, and that their friends likely resented their bragging about their daughter’s piano accomplishments, they
wouldn’t listen. I had to practice the piano half an hour before school every morning and half an hour after dinner every night, six days a week. These practicing times were monitored by a timer above the oven in the kitchen. In the morning, while I was practicing, and my parents were in their bedroom getting ready for work, I’d sneak into the kitchen and advance the timer several minutes to shorten my practice time. I also learned to read a book at the piano at the same time that I practiced scales.
My piano rebellion went further. I was always technically proficient at the piano, yet I never played with feeling. My parents could make me practice, but they would never make me play as though I enjoyed myself. My piano teacher always wrote in her evaluations that I “played like a martinet.” I never intended to change. I was told that someday I would be thankful that I was made to practice the piano, but I’m still waiting.
I never got to know my parents well. In my memory, all we ever did during my childhood was fight each day about when I would practice the piano. That’s what my friends also remember about my childhood. My husband, Norman, tells me that my parents have been dead over thirty years, yet I am still punishing them by not playing the piano. I understand his sentiment, but he didn’t live my life. I was nineteen when we married. Afterward, my father took Norman aside and implored him to make me practice the piano.