Editor’s Note: As Inside the Robe draws to a close, we want to extend our heartfelt thanks to Judge Mader for allowing us to republish her work and take part in sharing her story. We’d encourage everyone to revisit and share the Judge’s work via our Crime Story Collection page.
In Part 95, Judge Mader concludes her chronicle of a year in the life of a judge. In her afterword, Judge Mader reflects on the family members who got her to where she is today.
You can find links to all installments of Inside the Robe here.
A substitute prosecutor and I were able to exercise some compassion this morning. A young woman before me had almost completed three years of probation for resisting a police officer and making a criminal threat, both felonies. She had no prior record before or since.
Her only remaining duty on probation was thirty days of community labor. She had already completed a year-long anger management class, as well as paid over $1,200 in thirty-one installments to the probation office for their services. She explained, “I am the sole support for my four younger brothers; our mother died several years ago. I just haven’t had the time to do the labor. I have no relatives to help me. I made arrangements with my employer to take off the month of January to do the thirty days that I owe.” I asked, “Who will support your family while you are off work?” “I will use up my savings.”
I couldn’t make her give up her salary for a month. Not when she was doing everything else right. With the agreement of the prosecutor, I deleted her labor requirement, deemed her probation payments paid in full, and reduced her felonies to misdemeanors. She will start the new year with a clean slate.
Handling the calendars for four separate judges on vacation allows me to see how other judges manage their caseloads. This week I have had some prosecutors trying hard to settle their cases, as well as other prosecutors with no interest in doing anything other than letting cases languish until the new year.
Judges each handle their caseloads differently. A court rule requires that felony trial judges resolve each case within the first 120 days of the case arriving in their courtroom. Judges can compare their stats with those of other judges. My stats have always been in the middle of the pack. I consider this a triumph. I not only have a prosecutor giving unrealistically high offers, but also have inexperienced defense attorneys who can’t get their clients to plead to anything.
Some judges push cases out the door to trial within 120 days, whether or not they’re ready. Attorneys become furious at those judges, especially when they are unaware of pressure on judges because of the 120-day rule. As the case gets closer to 120 days, the judge says, “Your case must settle or it’s going to trial. This is the last continuance.” Even if the case is on the verge of settlement, the judge will send it to Department 100, the master calendar court. The psychology of this approach makes some sense. Some attorneys need a fire lit under them to prepare a case for trial or cases would be continued indefinitely. Prosecutors also may learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of their own cases if they are forced to prepare for trial.
I’m comfortable sitting in the middle. Trying to get my stats too low will cause unnecessary arguments with both sides. Judges with the best stats can become highly competitive. They eagerly await the published stats each month to make sure they’re top dog again.
Hurray! This is my last day of work for the year.
- I worked 212 days
- I used zero days of sick time
- I took every day of my allotted thirty days of vacation and two personal days
- During the year I was sent thirty jury trials
- Fourteen settled without going to trial
Of the sixteen jury trials I conducted, fourteen defendants were found guilty, one was found not guilty, and one trial resulted in a hung jury
Justice keeps chugging along. Next year will be similar. Fifty years from today, due to our justice system’s penchant for predictability, there will be more of the same. The criminal justice system changes incrementally. Abrupt change could make the system wobbly, and the public might lose respect for it. Sentencing laws may change depending upon politicians’ whims. People will develop ingenious ways to commit new crimes, and the legislature will hurry to pass laws to keep up.
Most Americans want to revere judges, and we want judges worthy of our reverence. It is part of our national character. But as Donald Dale Jackson wrote in Judges, “There’s nothing worse than an ignorant or corrupt judge. A good judge is inspiring; a bad one provokes contempt. Judges are insulated, caressed, and protected by the brotherhood of the robe. As a class, judges are no more or less honest, industrious, or moral than other groups of comparably educated professionals.” I agree.
We all have a sacred responsibility to make sure our personal histories and biases don’t infect our day-to-day decision-making. The criminal justice system has a huge amount of power over many lives. All of us, the public as well as the judges, are its guardians, keeping it safe and available for future generations.
I began this work describing the dark-haired young woman with deep brown eyes, similar to my own, who stares at me each morning when I enter my chambers. Aunt Lea and her family are my guideposts. She, her husband, Uncle Josef, and my first cousins, Fritz, Martin, and Simon, were denied the chance to live full lives. My parents are long dead. Yet their influence continues, even as to small matters. Sometimes I imagine my relatives trudging through a blizzard, knowing that if they fell out of line or stumbled, they would be shot. When I’m unloading groceries and wondering whether I can make it up the front steps carrying the last heavy grocery bag, I say to myself, “My relatives suffered much worse than this. It’s okay to strain a little to hold onto that last bag. You can do it.”
The Holocaust provides the framework for many of my core beliefs, as it does for many children of its survivors. I always felt that I owed it to my parents to have a successful career. Somehow that would validate their own lives and the lives of my murdered relatives. At the same time, as they encouraged me, their only child, to push myself, I always received mixed messages. My parents promoted a distrustful view of the world in which personal survival was always threatened. They constantly reminded me, “You have to watch out because you’re Jewish. You are much too idealistic and honest. You will never get anywhere in life being that honest. There are no such things as true friends outside the family.”
I rejected those parental warnings at the time they were given and still do today. I continue to be idealistic and am likely too optimistic that as a judge I can have an impact on defendants’ bad behavior. Anne Frank and I may be naïve in believing that while there are some evil people in the world, people are basically good. My idealism and honesty on the bench and off may get me into trouble, but I don’t know another way. Unlike my parents, I am trusting with friends with whom I’ve formed a chosen family.
My parents’ cynicism about institutions is not solely a Jewish trait but is one that I share. Having explored the power of politicians, law enforcement, prosecutorial agencies, and the judiciary, I share my parents’ wariness. I want to fight to protect those whose rights are trampled, whether criminal defendants or crime victims. I cannot imagine losing my compassion for underdogs or challenging the powerful.
As I write these words, I am almost seventy and delighted to still be here. I am haunted by a photo that I saw years earlier: A father kneeling to eye-level of his two small children and speaking with them as they were about to be taken to a death camp’s gas chamber. He was pointing at the sky, as if to say, “That’s where we will see each other again.” I’ve had the privilege of growing older; too many of my friends and family did not. As much as I have tried to learn about Aunt Lea and her family, I have to accept that all five disappeared into the sky. This book is a tribute to them. Their history is gone, but I hope and trust that this work will validate their existence, and my own, for my grandchildren and beyond.