Thursday, March 21, 2013

Black Robe Disease

There are very few moments in my professional life that can top the day that my wife helped me put on the judge’s robe for the first time.  Family, friends and colleagues were there to witness and congratulate me on assuming the bench.

The next memorable professional moment was the first time I walked into the Courtroom and the bailiff announced, “All rise, the District Court for Sibley County is now in session, the Honorable Thomas McCarthy presiding.”  Wow!  Standing up when I come into the courtroom!

It’s all pretty heady stuff.  And it all too easily can go to one’s head.  It’s the rare and brave attorney who will call to my attention something that I do that offends or bothers them.  It’s “Yes, Judge.” “We’ll do that Judge.” “Whatever you say, Judge.”

All of us who put on the robe let it go to our heads from time to time.  Some let it go to their heads more.  It’s what we call “Black Robe Disease”:  The affliction that can lead a judge to believe that he is more important/smarter/wiser than ordinary human beings. 

So, what is the antidote for this debilitating condition?  Well, having a no-nonsense spouse who still makes you pick up your socks and make the bed if you’re the last one up does help.  So does community service work, like walking a road ditch with the Lions Club to pick up trash.   A little reflection and prayer helps to keep a judge humble, too.

I recall one time a bailiff told me about the “word on the street” about a decision I had made.  I became upset, and told him I had made the right decision with the information I had at the time.  After the bailiff left the office, I realized the mistake I had made – NOT the decision that he told me about, but becoming upset that he told me about it.  I realized that this was the rarest of gifts – an honest, private critique of a decision I had made.  So, I found the bailiff (who was a good friend of mine, as well as a co-worker) and apologized.  I asked him to keep on telling me if he thought I messed up.  He did, in a respectful manner that I know made me a better judge.

Every judge needs to develop strategies to get honest feedback, and cure that dreaded Black Robe Disease.

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Next week:  Courtroom Decorum