Justice David Saxe (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
It is a happy ceremony to be welcoming newly-appointed, newly-elected judges of our courts, including all those judges who have been re-elected and re-appointed.
For those in the infancy of your judicial careers, let me offer the following advice:
1. First, everyone is going to call you Your Honor, or Judge, at least to your face, and laugh at your witty remarks. Don’t get sucked into believing that this is happening because you are especially brilliant or you are a special person. Just because you wear a black robe at work and lawyers seem to defer to you and call you Your Honor shouldn’t cause you to come down with that dreaded disease—robitis.1
2. Second, remember you are a judge all the time, not only when you are in court, but elsewhere. For example, if you are stopped while driving home after a party and given a DUI, that could be a career ender. Suppose you are at a gathering and someone tells an off-color or otherwise inappropriate joke to a small group you are in and you simply let it pass. Well, if someone else there knew you were a judge and thought you were endorsing a racist or homophobic comment, you might later be offering an explanation to the Commission on Judicial Conduct. The line between public and private behavior is murky.
3. By the same token, as a judge you are responsible for virtually everything that transpires in your courtroom or under your watch. The actions of your staff reflect upon you and upon the administration of justice, so you should carefully monitor things. Something as seemingly trivial as a part clerk’s display of knicknacks and personal items could be deemed offensive to some.
4. Be respectful of lawyers and litigants and be patient as well. It’s not an easy job getting up in court and presenting a position; it is an even harder job to argue before a panel of five judges who are all intent on interrupting each other, some with penetrating questions, some with inquiries of dubious value. Try not to try the lawyer’s case. It may be a waste of time to hear arguments about a point of law on which we have already made up our minds, but I think we do owe it to lawyers to allow them to chart their course.2
5. Don’t talk so much. As a trial judge, you are obliged to respond to evidentiary objections and, of course, to render orders and decisions. But, beyond that, many judges seem to supply endless barrages of commentary throughout a trial or hearing or even throughout a motion calendar. Such chatter is unnecessary, undignified and more likely to get you in trouble if thoughtless words have a habit of tumbling out of your mouth. You are not being paid to express your personal or political views on matters of public interest. Also, be leery of humor. What you believe is a witty riposte may to others, especially those captive in your courtroom, appear to be boorish.3
6. Take some time before sending your first opinion in for publication. Have a trusted senior colleague go over it with you before releasing it to the legal community. You will be carefully judged by this initial work, so take your time.
7. Don’t spend your lunch hour in chambers. Have lunch with your colleagues. Most courthouses have lunch rooms of some sort where judges gather and exchange war stories. You may pick up some valuable advice at these gatherings. Also, judging is solitary work; it’s helpful to feel like part of a community even if it’s only for a short time during the middle of the day.
8. If things seem to get heated in your courtroom, and you feel the temptation to deal with a somewhat over-the-top lawyer through a contempt citation, think twice. Take a break; call for a brief adjournment and walk off the bench. When you return, more collected, you may be surprised to find that you have a more focused way of dealing with the problem. Holding lawyers or parties in contempt often says more about the judge’s inability to control and monitor a courtroom than about the lawyer or the party cited.
9. Don’t be afraid of reversal. It is dismaying to all new judges to open the New York Law Journal and find that one of your prized decisions has been reversed by an appellate court. But, reversal or modification can keep our ego in check and also it serves an educational function.
10. Finally, and perhaps the most important gem I can give you: when seated in court, take your time getting up from your plush chair. If you get up too quickly, you may hear that dreaded sound of a silk robe being ripped apart when it gets stuck under the metal wheel on the bottom of your chair.4
1. See generally, Lavine, “Practical Tips for New Judges Making the Transition to The Bench,” 48 Judges Journal / Winter, 2009, p. 14
2. See Devitt, “Ten Commandments for the New Judge,” 82 F.R.D. 209 (1979)
3. Lavine, supra note 1 at 17; See also Saxe, “Not a Time for Humor,” The National Law Journal, August 14, 1989, p. 13 (Podium)
4. Saxe, “Tips to New Trial Judges,” The Judges Journal, vol. 34 no. 1, p. 38 (Winter 1995)