Monday, September 10, 2012

Judges Are Human, Too

I remember the first  time I appeared in front of the Circuit Court Judge as a newly-minted attorney in the 1990s. My boss at the law firm gave me a folder and told me to appear on behalf of our client, a doctor in a medical malpractice case, to argue our motion for summary judgment. I was excited to be making my first appearance to argue a motion in court.

As I prepared, I remembered all the buzz words that go along with such a motion from my first-year civil procedure course. That had been my favorite course in law school, so I was sure that I was up to the task. I meticulously reviewed the file and prepared copious notes in case the debate over the motion got heated.

The day for the hearing arrived, and I was dressed the part of teh successful young attorney preparing to make justice happen for my client. Inside the court room sat dozens of other attorenys from our small town, and several dozen spectators in the church-pew seats. I waited nervously for two hours for my case to be called that morning.

The judge -- a notoriously unemotional but not un-friendly man in his 50s who went to my church and whose son I had taught in school prior to my leaving the teaching profession to go to law school -- sat at the bench in a rather relaxed posture. He called case after case, and the attorneys for both sides went forward to argue their motions or to set dates for various proceedings.

Finally, the judge called my case. I stood with pride and, with eagerness and confidence, strode to the podium to reiterate what the motion already stated. I did not even notice that there was no one at the other podium on behalf of the plaintiff. When the judge uttered my name as an invitation to speak, I launched into my spiel. In the midst of what I delivered were all the the key legal buzz phrases: "There is no genuine issue of material fact and, even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party -- the plaintiff -- my client is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." I don't think I took a breath during the two-minute oration. When I finished, I took a half step back, waiting for the judge to call on the other attorney. That's when I looked over and saw that there was no one there on behalf of the other party.

"Motion denied. Thank you Counselor," said the judge. "Clerk, call the next case."

That was it. Talk about having the wind knocked out of your sails. "How embarrassing," I said to another female attorney from my law firm who was seated in the galley waiting for her case to be called. She had been at the firm for about two years before I came. "I lost a motion when there was no one there to argue on the other side," I continued.

"Relax," she said. "Judge H never grants MSJs (motions for summary judgment). He errs on the side of caution and lets everything go to the jury."

 "Does Mr. P (our senior attorney) know that?"  I asked incredulously.

"Sure. That's why he sent you. Think he wants to stand there and be shot down by the judge?" she responded.

"Then why did he file the motion in the first place?" I whispered.

"You have to. The client expects it. You have to show the client that you tried to get the case dismissed, but the mean old judge is keeping it alive," she whispered back without taking her eyes off the judge.

"At least the judge could have played along," I said. "He could have asked me a few questions or offered an explanation of his ruling."

Shaking her head almost imperceptibly, my colleague said, "He doesn't like to waste words. He simply rules on it and leaves us to offer an explanation to the boss."

"What a guy," I concluded before collecting my jacket and briefcase to head back up the street to our office to face my boss and inform him that WE lost the motion.

Flash forward to this morning when that memory that I just recited came flooding back to me. I have not been in front of a judge in quite a few years, as my law career does not require in-court appearances. But, over the years I have come to respect the judge in the Circuit Court where first I wet my feet as a young attorney

The story that invoked the memory of the lost motion and revived those feelings of wonder about what makes judges tick comes from Arizona. It was not a middle-aged male judge in this case, but a female judge of unknown maturity.

According to the reports, the case before the female judge involved a woman who was sexually assaulted by a police officer. The off-duty officer got drunk -- eight beers drunk -- and drove to a bar. There he managed to approach a woman whom he knew only as a friend of a friend and assaulted her from behind. You can read the details elsewhere.

The disturbing comments made by the judge are what made this story go viral. The female judge proceeded to tell the victim that she should be careful where she goes, and that bars are a dangerous place. Now, I will admit that there are times when I read about assaults or other crimes against women and I have wondered if they could have avoided the situation. But there was no evidence in this case that there was any "fault" on the victim's part, nor that the place where the assault occurred was notorious for misconduct or crimes. So, it would appear that the judge was way off base in her remarks to the victim. She will undoubtedly pay for it in the next judicial election, in 2014.

I have come to appreciate Judge H being a man of few words. He is long since retired from the bench. But in the few years that I practiced before him, he taught me a valuable lesson: judges are human, too.

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