In Part 89, Judge Mader discusses the complex considerations when resolving conflicts between parties in court. The Judge then looks to the Thanksgiving holiday and reflects on what she is thankful for in the American criminal justice system.
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The conclusion to the case of the fake animal control officers described on August 26 unfolded in court this morning. Both of the women had entered a stranger’s home to rescue a dog in distress. As the women were dressed in fake uniforms, one with a mail-order badge, the victim surrendered his dog to them. The women promptly took the dog to a vet, then righteously claimed that they were performing a heroic act instead of the crime of burglary.
The DA’s office treated the women with unusual compassion, allowing them to plead guilty to a felony, but agreeing to reduce it to a misdemeanor at time of sentencing if 220 hours of community service were performed. The defendants had no difficulty completing the community service, especially because it was done at an animal shelter.
When one of the defendants appeared for sentencing in my court, she had a new attorney and she wanted to withdraw her plea. Her attorney claimed, “When my client pleaded guilty, she didn’t realize that her conviction would prevent her from getting a license for her new business, selling pet insurance.” The criminal supervisor whom I’ve described as being harsh on criminal defense attorneys and defendants must have a soft spot for dog rescuers. He agreed to let her change her plea to the misdemeanor of “misusing a badge,” which strangely would not cause licensing problems.
On February 4, I wrote of a judge who was involuntarily transferred because he wouldn’t work with a difficult public defender. Since that day I’ve spoken with a colleague with a different take on the situation. My colleague suggested, “It’s unfortunate the aggrieved judge had to be transferred from a location and assignment he preferred, but we should look at the bigger picture. It gives a lot of power to a defense attorney if he or she thinks they can force a judge from their courtroom by being difficult. If an attorney sees this method can succeed to his client’s advantage, it will happen more often.”
There is a natural tension between a supervising judge running a courthouse and another judge inhabiting a trial courtroom. A judge responsible for running a courthouse might feel a strong obligation to push back against attorneys, either prosecution or defense, who are trying to exercise control by bullying a judge. While that may disturb the affected judge, no reaction at all may be best for the smooth functioning of the courthouse.
Years back, in an infamous incident, a public defender was slugged by his client in court because he wanted a different public defender. The judge was inclined to give the client a new lawyer, believing at first that there was an obvious conflict between the client and his attorney. However, the public defender’s office argued strenuously against allowing the defendant to get a new attorney. Their position was, “If you allow this defendant to get a new attorney because he slugs the one in court, every public defender is going to get slugged by their client.”
The judge did not change the attorney, and the policy remains in effect. There have been a few slugging issues as well as even stabbing of public defenders by defendants with smuggled razor blades and sharpened pencils. These actions never result in the substitution of attorneys. The policy seems wise when you think of the thousands of cases each year represented by the public defenders and the minute number of attacks.
The week before the Thanksgiving holiday is notoriously slow. I even forgot to look at my calendar before I started work today and missed greeting the jurors in the jury assembly room, a task meted out to each judge several times a year.
Each judge greets jurors differently. The jurors arrive bleary-eyed and resentful after receiving a robocall to be at the courthouse at 8:00 a.m. sharp. The attendance process allows time for stragglers. If a juror is the punctual type and arrives at 8:00 a.m., they will spend two hours waiting in a large, sterile, assembly room. A “reward” for prospective jurors is being greeted by a real judge.
I deliver a set speech but add a few new remarks each time. Judges have gotten into disciplinary trouble by trying to be too funny or “real” during jury greetings. One new judge, doing the greeting for the first time, told jurors, “In my experience, most defendants are guilty of something, and it’s the jury’s job to find out what that ‘something’ is.” This was duly reported by a juror who was sent to a trial court where an earnest judge tried to explain the concept of the presumption of innocence.
“But, Your Honor,” the juror said, “we were just at the juror orientation and the judge there said that everyone arrested was guilty of something.” The entire jury panel that had been oriented by the new judge had to be re-educated, then discharged.
It is heart-warming how many people, particularly immigrants, are proud to sit on a jury and play a part in a system different from what they’ve experienced in their home country. This stands in contrast with others who avidly search the internet for excuses to avoid jury duty, most of which judges have heard multiple times.
I’ve gone to parties where people, after finding out I’m a judge, brag that “I just couldn’t re-schedule my patients for a week-long jury trial. I was able to convince my last judge that because of its importance I couldn’t be gone that long. Someday I’d like to serve, of course.”
They are taken aback when I say, “I’m the last person you should be telling about how successful you were to avoid service. You’d be the first to take advantage of the jury system if your kids or you were in trouble. I would never have released you.”
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, then a week’s vacation. I am thankful for so much. I am grateful to live in a country with a criminal justice system, which, while flawed and sometimes arbitrary, is capable of compassion and fairness. I hope the continuing movement to reform excessive sentencing laws will continue. I am thankful that at least in California, most judges strain to remain impartial, educated, and follow the law. We have not had the same corruption scandals as other states. No briberies, no judges operating private jails conspiring to send juveniles there for personal profit, no lenient sentences for friends and relatives.
We even have a relatively uncorrupted system for becoming judicial officers. Not only can our elected governor appoint qualified judges, but there is a screening process involved that in theory, at least, finds the best-qualified candidates. Even those not in political favor can go to the voters and try to become a judge through election. Judges in other states are often selected by political parties, or by contributing large sums to politicians. It happens on rare occasions, but it is far from the norm. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to become an elected judge, and to securely hold this office for sixteen years.
Watching the continuing politicization of the judiciary in other states, I am grateful that my job is secure, with generous benefits, and enough money to live comfortably. In other states, hundreds of thousands of dollars are poured into judicial contests, often by PACs trying to force out judges considered insufficiently partisan. This has led to the expulsion of fine and honest judges.
Having observed criminal juries in action, and seeing how seriously they take their task, I feel thankful to all who have participated. From a minor DUI to a major murder trial, something magical happens when twelve people deliberate the fate of a fellow member of the community. I see and admire people’s basic goodness. Regardless of whether they thought they would be done on a Friday afternoon, jurors often go beyond personal convenience to make sure they have made the correct decision.
I am thankful others have recognized that I do good work and have assigned me to a court where I make decisions that impact people’s lives. Whether it’s having traveled the world, learned from the experiences of others here and abroad, raised three children, or having had four decades of a career I’ve loved, it’s all come together. I feel comfortable that the dozens of decisions I make daily are solid.
I am grateful to toil among colleagues with whom I get along, and with whom I can easily communicate. Having felt like an outsider in other environments, I am thankful to have found surroundings where I fit. I greet people when I arrive and say goodbye at the end of the day without twinges of discomfort, harboring no sense that others wish me anything but good will. And the same for my staff. We are all happy and work well collaboratively.
Studies verify that as people age, they become happier with their lives. I agree. I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses, and I accept them. I am grateful that I’ve enjoyed good health and vitality while some friends and family have had their lives tragically cut short. I have no regrets.
My wish for next year is for healing the political divisions in our country and continued health and good cheer for my family, friends, and colleagues. Thanksgiving for me is more meaningful than Christmas or Hanukkah, even though I don’t descend from Pilgrims. The “holidays” have no significance for me. My secular Jewish parents always had a Christmas tree, their attempt to “fit in.” That was important to them, but I will never understand how they could so easily discard their Jewish heritage. I could never pretend to be Christian. I am grateful I have received the heritage and culture of Judaism; the religious part doesn’t grab me. I hope that next year, growing anti-Semitism in my country will fade away.