In Part 90, Judge Mader explains the role of a court commissioner and what happens when these court officers make a misstep. She then details the boundaries she sets for herself when friends and family ask for legal advice.
You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.
Most people don’t understand the role of court commissioners, judicial officers who do much of the heavy lifting. Commissioners are hired by and serve at the pleasure of the judges. They sit on the dais in black robes, conducting court business, looking just like judges, so most litigants readily agree to have their case handled by a commissioner. Attorneys covet becoming a commissioner because the salary is only slightly less than that of a judge. Most commissioners preside over busy, intense, courtrooms, such as traffic or landlord-tenant court, with little down time, and no avenue for promotion. At the end of each day, most commissioners are exhausted.
Last week, a commissioner got into trouble and was transferred. For years there had been no problems between the commissioner and the local city prosecutor’s office. The City Attorney’s office performs a valuable service enforcing quality-of-life crimes, but those types of crimes also cause tension between neighborhood residents and the criminal justice system.
The City Attorney’s office was trying to clean up a homeless area by collecting refuse. The items collected included allegedly contaminated belongings left unattended while their homeless owners lined up for food, collected cans for recycling, or looked for a bathroom. Oversized possessions such as tents were confiscated and impounded for storage, up to eighteen miles from where they were seized. A homeless advocate was arrested for protesting the confiscation of homeless possessions by lying in the path of a sanitation truck. His attorney argued, “My client was exercising his First Amendment right to protest. This is a case of moral values and how we as a society choose to deal with the problems of poverty and homelessness.”
Prosecutors have a difficult job balancing homeless people’s property rights against the need to maintain public safety and health. The homeless have strong advocates; homeowners also have powerful voices. The homeless advocate ultimately pleaded guilty to “disturbing the peace.” The prosecutor reasonably asked the commissioner to place the defendant on probation for one year and order him to stay away from cleanup trucks during their weekly sweeps.
The commissioner, however, made several unusually inflammatory remarks. He rejected placing the defendant on probation and said, “People are not disposable property. You can’t just sweep people up.” He added, “You take away their means of transportation, their bicycle, and then tell them to go downtown—there’s a certain irony there, don’t you think? How are they supposed to get downtown? Hitchhike? Walk?” The commissioner ended his remarks by saying, “Sometimes in a free society, the peace needs to be disturbed.” He then spoke of his own history of protesting the Vietnam War.
Usually a commissioner or a judge can get away with these types of remarks. But this case was monitored closely by the City Attorney’s office, by homeless advocates, and by homeowner groups. The City Attorney decided they would no longer allow the commissioner to hear their cases, and that ended his ability to work at that courthouse. With no advance notice, the commissioner was transferred to a traffic calendar courtroom in another district.
A thick file arrived with a new trial this morning. Thickness means the case has been around for a long time, motions have been filed, and charges are likely to be more serious. The thinner files, when accompanied by attorneys, are often minor felonies in which the defendant is mentally ill and, despite his attorney’s advice, insisting on a quick trial. There hasn’t been enough time for the attorney to file motions or receive additional evidence.
The prosecutor with the file was from the Family Violence Unit; the case involved a threat made by a defendant to his brother while holding a knife. According to the defense attorney, “The entire family of five lives in an extremely small apartment. The family argues continuously, and family members are on top of each other all day.
The defendant has only a minor record, but he has an alcohol problem. He wants a program. If he could get help somewhere, he could get away from the apartment and his family.”
I sent the attorneys to see the DA supervisor, to see if a deal could be worked out. I get upset when family members testify against each other. That breach in the family will never heal. The prosecutor was reluctant to go back to her supervisor. “It will make me look bad.” I urged her to go anyway, the case was settled, and the defendant got out of the apartment and into an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Twice today I received phone calls from friends asking for help. The only reason they called is because I’m a judge. One was an attorney friend who asked, “Which judges should I try to get before and who should I avoid?” I told my friend, “There’s just no way I can give advice about where to go to trial. It would be unethical to do that. Besides, we occasionally do civil trials in my building, and someday you might come before me.”
Another friend got into a beef with a relative who is threatening to bring criminal charges. Should he respond to an accusatory letter sent by the relative? I offered a small bit of advice. “Never, under any circumstances, discourage someone from going to the authorities. Always keep records of every email, text, or other communication you have with someone. Write down your observations of everything that’s happened. If the relative goes to the police, you’ll be able to show all your documentation. In my experience, the person with the most credible documentation wins.”
A hostile and belligerent defendant representing himself can gum up the system. That’s how I spent my morning. This defendant keeps collecting new criminal charges. First, he was arrested for robbery. He was then charged with several separate “gassing” incidents, an insider’s term referring to an inmate throwing urine or feces at guards through a small opening in the window of his cell. Each gassing results in a new charge of assault on a correctional officer.
Understandably, the Sheriff’s Department is irked with this defendant and the court system, as each offense has been assigned to a different judge with different assigned attorneys and different dates for court appearances. I can’t blame the sheriffs for being annoyed.
Gassing is a severe problem in the jail. If urine or feces is thrown on deputies’ clothing or skin, they don’t want to make their rounds. The object thrown needs to be collected and analyzed for evidence in a possible criminal trial. Otherwise, especially with urine, prisoners will argue that it was just water. HIV causes deputies even more worries. Substances have been thrown in deputies’ faces, getting into their eyes. The deputies then have to get HIV testing. Deputies used to be able to throw out their soiled uniforms and have the county reimburse them for new uniforms. Now the uniforms have to be bagged as potential evidence, too, and reimbursement is slow. Serving as a jail deputy is not a fun assignment but mandatory for all new sheriff deputies.