Did you hear the one about the Florida judge who “called out” a public defender and punched him in the courthouse hallway? No joke. According to the recent story in the ABA Journal, the judge agreed to obtain treatment and take anger management classes. Less outrageous perhaps but similarly aberrational are the stories about judges who won’t make decisions after a hearing or trial.
Stories like these are “newsworthy” because they are outrageous. Likewise, they are outrageous because they are so completely out of line with our basic assumptions and beliefs.
Because the cultural appetite for such “news” is seemingly insatiable and perhaps because trial judges are in some ways “sitting ducks,” there will undoubtedly be more such “horror” stories from time to time. But instead of emphasizing only the negative, aberrational “news stories” perhaps it is worth taking a moment to comment favorably upon some of the qualities of the “better” trial judges. Let’s forget for a moment the crazy, aberrant behavior of the very few who make the news and ask: What makes a really good trial judge?
Using these two stories as examples, two specific qualities come to mind. First, in contrast to the judge in the first example who completely “lost it,” there are countless trial judges who demonstrate the opposite qualities. They are the ones who listen patiently to witnesses and lawyers. They allow lawyers to try their cases. They find the right “balance” between the limits of the available judicial resources and the necessities of permitting a party to make a record.
Throughout the sometimes difficult, contentious, adversarial process, the good judges will maintain a level of professional dignity and decorum. It is a pleasure to work with a judge who can maintain such a dignified demeanor even when denying a party’s request, overruling an objection, or issuing a ruling against a party’s claims and interests. Whether we “win” or “lose” everyone wins whenever the trial judge sets a high standard of conduct during a trial.
Those are the qualities we all should celebrate and honor in our trial judges even when they are not ruling in our favor. And therein lies another particularly important assumption about the better judges, namely that the judge will promptly render a decision. Of course, the extent to which a decision is “prompt” is certainly a function of the complexity of the issues involved in a particular matter.
But in cases involving a short calendar hearing where the issues in dispute are fixed and limited, it is a refreshing experience to sit and listen to a good trial judge issue a decision from the bench shortly after closing arguments. It is all the more remarkable when a judge renders a decision from the bench immediately after a lengthy hearing and demonstrates that: the parties were heard; all of the evidence was considered; and the court’s decision (up or down) has taken into account the essential claims and concerns of all parties.
Sometimes it is worth reminding ourselves of the reasons why we are so shocked by the aberrational stories of bad judges in the news. After all, it wouldn’t be “news” if it happened all the time.