In Part 61, Judge Mader reflects on the dynamics among the Los Angeles County Superior Court branches and explores a phenomenon called ‘Black Robe Fever’ where a judge’s ego becomes inflated because of his or her position.
Cora remains antagonistic and rude. When I walk into my courtroom for the first time each morning, I like to see smiling and gracious people, not someone who doesn’t raise her eyes. I don’t think our relationship can be fixed. Facing hostility every morning is a downer, but it doesn’t dampen my happiness about being assigned to this courthouse.
A well-functioning courtroom is a treat. I know when a person is speaking too fast for my court reporter and I ask them to slow down. My judicial assistant knows how to line up the cases in the morning and gather the attorneys together to swiftly plow through the calendar. I feel when it’s the precise time for a break. I can give my bailiff a slight nod, and she knows that I am going to take someone into custody, and she can prepare backup. When the court staff works as a smooth machine, and the prosecutor and public defenders assigned to the court are part of the same machine, courtroom atmosphere is ideal.
I watch defense attorneys approach my prosecutor like hopeful puppies waiting for a pat on the head. Cora often treats the lawyers dismissively. The defense attorneys reel back in shock that their polite manner was met with discourtesy. I want to jump in and tell them, “It’s not your fault or even the fault of the DA’s office. It’s just this prosecutor.” But that’s not my role.
Persuading a client to accept a plea deal is an art form. The more experienced defense attorneys figure it out. I have two new and green defenders assigned to my court. If a timid new attorney represents a hardened convict, the prisoner will sense weakness and try to push the attorney around. Unless the attorney pushes back, time is wasted with useless continuances and motions. A difficult client may insist that his attorney file more motions, even ones that don’t make sense. In the end, the client may insist he is entitled to a program (a residential treatment setting). Even when it’s absurd to think that the client will ever get the program, the attorney will keep stringing along the case, hoping for a miracle.
When I first became a judge in 2001, I was assigned to the downtown courthouse and loved it. First, I handled drunk driving trials, then a mass court with eighty to a hundred minor crimes every day. Setting dates for prostitution trials and taking pleas in trespass cases was thrilling in the beginning. Sitting in my black robe on an elevated bench with dozens of defendants and attorneys jostling for my attention in a cavernous courtroom made me feel like the master of my universe. I’d never had that feeling before. I understand how judges fall prey to “Black Robe Fever,” a malady characterized by a hugely swelled head.
It can take a judge up to eight years working downtown to rise far enough through the ranks to get their own felony court. Some judges get impatient and jump ship. It’s especially discouraging for a judge to work for years in a repetitive and boring assignment waiting for a felony trial court and still not get one. There are many reasons why the holy grail, your own felony court, doesn’t happen. A judge can be too slow, too harsh, too lenient, or too rude. Judges are rarely told the real reason; if they see they aren’t moving anywhere for a long time, they can try to land a better assignment.
My trajectory was different. One day, I received a phone call from Judge Alan Haber, a middle-aged, salt-and pepper-bearded judge with twinkling eyes, in front of whom I prosecuted a death penalty trial in the early 1990s. Judge Haber was in charge of the West District of the County. “Kathy, I know you’ve been a judge just for a year, but I’d like you to transfer to the Westside. You’d be doing felony trials right away.” I felt flattered and agreed to go. That was a mistake. Now I know that when a judge transfers out of the downtown Central District, it is difficult to return. I grew up on the Westside, went to UCLA on the Westside, raised my family on the Westside, and still lived on the Westside. I looked forward to seeing my lifetime habitat in a new and different way. I transferred eagerly to the newly constructed courthouse near the Los Angeles airport called “LAX.” The LAX courthouse is a modern, green-glass concave high-rise topped by a circular helicopter pad visible from the perennially clogged 405 Freeway. It’s rumored that the County of Los Angeles was able to purchase the land cheaply because it was so close to the freeway interchange that it was unsuitable for much other than housing faceless government bureaucrats. The windows don’t open, there are no patios or terraces, and the unused judges’ lunchroom was in the freezing, windowless basement. I created a court-wide table tennis ladder tournament pitting judges against probation officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and sheriffs to finally make use of the lunchroom. I got into the finals a few times but ended up choking. What does that say about how I operate under stress? The courthouse design included private judge parking directly under the building, a private judge’s elevator, and a separate back hallway used only by judges. After passing through three secured entrances, it was literally possible for a judge to depart at the end of the day without seeing another person other than from the bench. I could have dropped dead in my chambers and not been discovered for hours.
I like commotion and chaos. I am energized by the commotion of others. As promised, I was assigned a felony trial the first day I arrived at LAX. A male defendant, being deported on an airplane to Nicaragua, was accused of making a bomb threat to a flight attendant as he walked to the restroom at the rear of the plane. According to the prosecution, the defendant whispered, “I have a bomb,” to the flight attendant. His motive was to avoid deportation. The defendant testified, “I didn’t make a threat. I was just singing La Bamba.” The jury found him guilty.
A friendly male judge, slightly older, took me aside soon after I arrived at LAX and said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, and I don’t know you, but another judge told all the other judges here not to trust or speak with you. I’m not sure why.” I had never met the other judge who dissed me and had no clue why he would have said such a thing. My enthusiasm for the new assignment dampened from day one.
The LAX courthouse, along with its isolation, was a difficult place to work. I am an enthusiastic worker and like to be engaged all day. After the first supportive LAX site judge transferred, the judge who had warned the other judges about me became the head of LAX judges. Technically, he was not my supervisor, but he acted like the boss of all. I never found out why he dissed me to everyone before I arrived, but I ended up spending a decade in the chambers next to him.
Talking to a fellow judge about the politics of the judiciary this morning, he said, “I’m from a big firm. One of my partners said that law firm politics were nothing compared to the viciousness of some of the political games played by judges. I didn’t believe it at first, but now I do.” As a new eager beaver, I wanted to work hard. Working hard at LAX was not the goal of some judges, especially those close to retirement. Working as little as possible was the goal of the site judge at LAX, and because I wanted to do the opposite, I was “not a team player.” Others hear, “She’s not a team player,” and never delve into why.
Each criminal courthouse is expected to handle its matters internally and not ask for help from others. The “best” branch court supervisors are those who never call downtown and keep their courthouses calm and quiet. Some branch supervisors report, “We can barely handle the workload. Every judge is working to capacity. There is no way we can take overflow from other courthouses.” While our site judge at LAX reported us madly working, I, along with several other judges, sat at my desk every afternoon bored to death. At first, I asked for more work. Then I learned that this was frowned upon. I wasn’t looked upon as someone eager to help and learn; I was looked upon as someone making trouble.
Could my cohorts and I successfully complain to someone? No. Downtown supervisors thought we were doing great when they never heard from us. Our site judge was dynamite at politics and knew to court others who mattered within the court system with liquor and gifts. I was boxed in, with nowhere to go. Hard to believe, but this situation lasted ten years.
Handling criminal trials, hanging out with friends, trying to avoid the site judge, I kept strategizing about ways to escape. For many years it seemed hopeless—until one day everything changed. As the expression goes, “Give your enemy enough rope and he will hang himself.” My site judge and all his cronies were ejected from their positions. I supported the right candidate for presiding judge, as I described on January 8, and transferred to a downtown felony trial court after twelve years at LAX, most of them miserable.