In Part 71, Judge Mader considers her experiences as a public defender and how they shaped her approach to presiding as a judge. Also, the Judge’s incidental assignment to a civil case leaves her wondering about the norms of the civil trial environment.

You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.

August 22

Not only is it hard to get trials started around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter break, but the entire summer should be added to the list. Syncing a prosecutor, defense attorney, defendant, and witnesses is always difficult. Everyone has their own vacation schedules, rendering several months of the year impossible for trials. It’s frustrating.

While I’m gone, my staff “floats” to other courts that need extra clerks, court reporters, and bailiffs. They always come back with crazy stories. The top complaint is always, “It’s amazing how often some judges yell at attorneys when they get frustrated.” One judge told me she kept a sign on her bench stating, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Ironically, she was one of the moodier judges.

I used to get frustrated myself and let it out on others around me. In the 1970s, I was a public defender in Sacramento. Engaged in a jury trial, I was about to call defense witnesses whom I had subpoenaed and who were supposed to be waiting in the hall. They were nowhere to be found. The cafeteria in the courthouse was on the sixth floor, my trial on the third floor, and the public defender’s office across the street. I asked the judge for a recess and ran from floor to floor without success, trying to find the defense witnesses. At one point, in the courthouse staircase dashing from floor to floor, my heart pounding, I said to myself, “I am making myself crazy trying to find witnesses who I properly subpoenaed to come to court. Why am I making myself frantic? I have done my job. I am letting myself become physically ill because irresponsible people have chosen not to appear.” That day changed my life. If I didn’t have proper defense witnesses to put on the witness stand, I did not take it personally. It was only my problem if I hadn’t done my job properly.

A civil trial will be assigned to me. The civil courthouse has a backlog of several years before a personal injury case (usually an auto accident) can go to trial. Since we are all superior court judges and qualified to handle any type of trial, court leadership decided to try to assign civil trials each day to the criminal courts. If the civil attorneys realize they will be assigned to a courtroom for trial, they might settle, especially if they think they’re coming before a criminal judge ignorant about civil law.

I volunteered because “Why not?” It might be a nice change. What a convenient way to try out civil law without having to give up my felony courtroom. After attending a one-hour crash course in how to handle a civil trial, I have the instructions in a binder on my desk. I’m ready to roll.

August 23

It took five minutes this morning to realize that I didn’t fit into the civil trial world. I couldn’t believe that we were going to spend four days in court for a jury to decide whether or not a woman suffered a soft tissue injury in a car accident. I thought a civil trial would be interesting but now I’m questioning my naïveté.

An athletic twenty-something brunette needed to turn her Toyota around in a residential area. She planned to execute a three-point turn into a driveway. As she turned into the driveway, however, she was broadsided by a van traveling behind her. The driver of the van, a soft-spoken middle-aged male, saw an image of a vehicle crossing in front of him. He believed that she was trying to make a U-turn and not turning into a driveway. He hit the woman on the driver’s side of her car creating forty-nine feet of skid marks as he screeched to avoid the turning Toyota.

Two perky young women from a law firm in San Diego, 120 miles away, are representing the female Toyota driver. They are asking only $8,000 for their client’s one year of supposed pain and problems from her neck and shoulder injury. The insurance company hired an overweight and sloppily dressed attorney to represent the man who hit the woman. He offered to settle the case for $5,500; the woman wanted $2,500 more. For the difference of $2,500 we are going to occupy a courtroom for three to four days. The insurance company refused to increase their offer to meet in the middle, even though the plaintiff’s attorneys were willing.

Viewing the attorney hired by the insurance company, I feel sad. It must be difficult in middle age to travel around Southern California trying small-potato car accident cases and fighting to protect insurance companies from giving out a few extra dollars. I wonder why the attorney has landed in this rut.

The expenses involved in preparation eclipse the amount of money asked for in this case. Essential witnesses were interviewed. An unavailable witness was videotaped. The winning party gets their costs reimbursed. The attorneys from San Diego seem confident they’re going to win. Yet, even if they do, once they give two-thirds of the recovery to their client, they will merely recover their costs and maybe earn a couple thousand dollars. The attorneys say that they like their client and they are doing this trial for her. I’m pleased I get to do a civil trial without transferring to civil. I also know now that I have no interest in going there again. Ever.

It’s a few hours later. I’ve returned home, and had time to reflect. Perhaps I was too harsh. A few years ago, the civil court judges helped out overloaded criminal judges. The civil judges were saddled with trying tedious driving-under-the-influence cases but not gang murders.

Perhaps civil is just sending us their dregs, the same way we did them, and keeping the most interesting cases for themselves.

August 24

Last night I was again confronted by a woman at a neighborhood party who, when she found out I ran a criminal court, exclaimed, “Just like Judge Judy!” I doubt that there is a single female judge in all fifty states who views Judge Judy as her role model. I have watched her show several times and each time I was appalled. If I talked to parties the same disrespectful way as Judge Judy, I would be brought up on ethics charges by the Commission on Judicial Performance. She is demeaning, sarcastic, ill-tempered, and just plain mean. It may be good for ratings, but it’s not real judging. I am disappointed that the public thinks that Judge Judy’s style is characteristic of woman judges. 

My colleague and I down the hall are both doing civil trials and both of us are ready to call it quits. But we would not be considered team players if we backed out. Arrogantly, I think that what I do in deciding whether someone should spend their adult life in state prison seems weighty and important. Pushing money across a table seems trivial, although I know it is important to the parties.

Both sides gave opening statements. The plaintiff’s attorney showed photos of her client horseback riding, traveling throughout the country doing tricks with her dog, and riding ocean waves with her dog on her surfboard. She claims her client was not able to engage in these activities after the accident. The defendant’s attorney, representing the insurance company, in his opening, stated, “The plaintiff was already seeing a chiropractor before the accident. Injuries from the car accident were not the whole reason she was seeing the chiropractor. We’re also going to bring in our own expert chiropractor to testify.”

All this for $2,500. I don’t get it. I do understand that insurance companies don’t want people to expect that any old lawsuit will get settled for nuisance value of a few thousand dollars. Insurance companies want to show that they are not frightened of going to trial. Is this the rollout of a new hard-line approach by insurance companies?

The plaintiff, a plain and jittery young woman employed as a dog trainer, was the first to testify. “I love dogs so much,” she said. “I train my own dog, I rescue dogs, I take dogs to dying children, and I house-sit dogs.” Tomorrow I presume we will learn how many of her favorite activities were impacted by the accident. “I had a knee problem a few years ago for which I went to the same chiropractor,” she testified. “That had nothing to do with my new neck injury.”

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