In Part 83, Judge Mader considers the approaches that different judges take to setting the tone in their courtrooms, including strategies to manage difficult personalities and legal community politics.
You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.
One of my favorite judges, “Uncle Charlie,” is widely considered one of the most decent and friendly judges in the building. He never gets upset, is extremely casual, and is liked by everyone. My staff was talking about the manner in which he starts court every morning.
Judges have a choice whether or not to do a formal opening every day in which the uniformed bailiff intones, “All rise and face the flag. Department 117 of the Los Angeles Superior Court is now in session. Judge Katherine Mader presiding—you may be seated.”
Each judge decides whether or not they’re comfortable with a formal opening. Everyone wanders in for our morning calendar between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m., and sometimes when I first enter the courtroom there are only a couple of people in the audience. It feels odd to me for such majestic remarks to be pronounced when only a few people will hear them.
Ironically for such a laid-back guy, Uncle Charlie starts every day with the formal opening. Michael, my clerk says, “Whenever I hear it, I expect to also hear trumpets blaring and rockets flying overhead.” There are benefits to a formal opening. It establishes from the moment court begins that this is a serious place, that the robed figure is securely in charge, and that the dispensing of justice can begin.
I tried a formal opening when I first became a judge sixteen years ago and felt uncomfortable. When I became a judge, almost everything felt pretentious, from wearing the black robe to being addressed as “Your Honor.” As the years have gone by, I have gotten more used to the pretentiousness but hope I don’t carry it into my private life.
Once my husband visited a court that I was running and was horrified. “How in the world can you get anything done with all that noise? I think you’re too informal. No one will respect you if you let everyone talk when you’re on the bench. It sure wasn’t like that when I used to go to court.” But this was my court. I was calling 100 cases a day with a dozen prosecutors and defense attorneys trying to resolve cases at the same time. Without such back-and-forth we could never finish our calendar. Other judges would be furious if we didn’t settle the majority of our cases because the leftover volume of trials would flood their own calendars. Nothing can get done in a quiet courtroom.
Perhaps I am too casual about my morning entrance. Maybe I should get over my queasiness about the opening by the bailiff and realize that the pomp is not for me but for justice.
I was sent another trial this morning, one more mentally ill defendant charged with an assault with a knife. Luckily, no injuries. I wonder why it’s being prosecuted as a felony. The defendant is not only mentally ill but on suicide watch, wrapped in a blanket to prevent him from hurting himself. The Sheriff’s Department tells me that the defendant cannot be kept in the courthouse for more than four hours from the time he is delivered in a separate van. That prevents me from conducting the trial in the morning. The trial will last longer because we can work only from 1:30 p.m. until 4 p.m. in order to get the defendant back to jail.
My friends and I laughed today, ruefully, about a fellow woman judge who is sixty years old, wears mini-skirts, and looks incredible. Besides this judge’s looks, she is whip smart and publishes a comprehensive guide for judges on a difficult topic. Whenever her name comes up, whether there are male or female judges in the discussion, the first thing one of the judges says is, “Wow, have you seen her lately? She looks incredible. I wonder how much work she has had done. I want her plastic surgeon.”
Nobody refers to the brilliant guide she authors. Ever. It’s always about her looks. Women judges can describe themselves as super- feminists, and our male colleagues are pumped full of politically correct lectures about sexism, but when we’re in a relaxed setting, what matters to all of us oldsters is how we look to one another.
The Sheriff’s Department won’t say why we can only have the defendant in our jury trial four hours a day for privacy reasons. A medication issue? Medications can only be given by a nurse at the jail, not at the courthouse. If an inmate needs meds every four hours, we can only hold our trial during the afternoons.
The defendant, with long stringy dirty gray hair, is obviously mentally ill and pitiable. He is making odd guttural sounds with his mouth and crumpling up paper. The victim was not injured by the knife that the defendant was waving around. This defendant belongs in a mental health facility. If he gets convicted and I lock him up, he will get out and threaten people again. The prosecutor is going back to her supervisor and trying to get the case resolved for mental health treatment. The defendant has already been in custody for eight months.
Jurors with quizzical expressions keep gazing at the defendant. Neither attorney, in questioning the jurors, has mentioned anything about mental illness. This defendant, after a psychiatric examination, has been found legally competent to stand trial. That doesn’t mean that the criminal justice system is the right forum to figure out what to do next with this defendant.
An earthquake drill dominated the morning, along with our calendar of fifteen cases. The fear of earthquakes permeates California daily life. Most people I know have an extra pair of sneakers in their car for walking home after an earthquake has damaged roads. Fragile items at home are fastened to the bottom of display cabinets with earthquake glue, a sticky wax, to ensure they won’t slide around during an earthquake. Judges are urged to keep water and other earthquake supplies at home, in the car, and at work. No one I know fastens a picture frame above a bed, to avoid a tumbling frame crushing our skull in the middle of the night.
The courthouse is vulnerable to a large earthquake, and we have frequent drills to train attorneys, jurors, and judges to use the inside stairways to leave the building after “The Big One.” It’s useless to predict an earthquake, and our courthouse may pancake in a large temblor. One judge is prepared to rappel down the side of the building.
As I walked back from the drill this morning, I was approached by a newer judge who attended my class on “Difficult Attorneys.” He was still shaken from an event the day before. The public defender assigned to his court, who had three cases in his court that morning, was inexplicably late. She didn’t tell the court clerk where she was. While other attorneys give court clerks their cell number to be contacted, this attorney had earlier refused to disclose her cell. After two hours, the clerk called her supervisor, who couldn’t be reached. The clerk called again, and asked the front desk, “Is there anyone around there who can find the public defender?” The receptionist transferred the judge’s clerk to the public defender’s second-level supervisor.
When this public defender was located, she was furious. No apologies. The judge, a mild-mannered fellow, tried to calm her down, but the attorney got more and more hostile. Finally, the judge asked, “Could you please bring your direct supervisor to my chambers after lunch?” At the meeting, the public defender again displayed hostility and extreme anger, even in front of her supervisor. She yelled, “I am being disrespected.” The judge kept asking in a reasonable tone of voice, “So what would you like me to do when we can’t find you?” No response.
Public defenders get angry when a supervisor is contacted. They like to think they operate autonomously, and no one can tell them what to do. I always try to protect the attorneys assigned to my court and text them when they are missing. But it has to work both ways.
Surely, supervisors will never remove this public defender from assignment to this judge. They never want to show their deputies that a judge won. I predict more tension in that court. The judge did everything right. But he will put all his conversations with the public defender on the record with the court reporter in the future. That way he’ll have a transcript of the attorney’s behavior if he has to admonish her.
Another judge joined our discussion and told another stunning story. “I have been postponing a trial for a year to accommodate a pregnant attorney.” This was way beyond the 120-day rule judges are required to follow to get a case to trial. “The attorney delivered her baby, and, through a different attorney, said the attorney with the new baby couldn’t come to court for three more months. I asked for a letter from the trial attorney’s doctor before I continued the trial again.”
The substitute attorney looked at the judge and said, “Are you accusing me of being a liar?” The aghast judge said, “Of course not. I just need documentation at this point.” The substitute attorney then went off the edge: “If it wasn’t for you pushing this case to trial, the attorney wouldn’t have had her baby prematurely. It was Your Honor’s pressure that created this situation.”
This judge was not as mild-mannered as the first colleague. He knew he was going to blow up, and said, “Think about what you’re saying. I’ll be back in five minutes.” Then he left the bench and sat fuming in his chambers. When he returned to the courtroom, the substitute attorney had been talked to by others. He was contrite and cooperative.
Handling difficult personalities is much harder than doing legal work. Having psychiatric training, including being able to prescribe medications, would also be valuable.
Our jury trial, planned for 1:30 this afternoon to accommodate the defendant’s mental health needs, was postponed until Monday. We did everything right. We ordered the special van to transport the prisoner, but the jail never removed him from his cell.
I feel frustrated because I can’t tell the jurors why we only have the trial in the afternoons, and, today, why we didn’t have the defendant. Since we make every effort to keep jurors in the dark whether someone is in custody, the jurors are annoyed as well as bewildered.