Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Live in a Great Country

The right to a trial by jury is guaranteed by the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Minnesota.  Ordinary citizens from all walks of life are selected randomly to report to the Courthouse to assist their fellow citizens in resolving civil disputes, or to determine whether an accused has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Sometimes, these summons for jury service come at inconvenient times.  A paid-up vacation, a wedding, a graduation all routinely result in jury service being deferred, if the prospective juror notifies the Court about it ahead of time.

On the day of trial, prospective jurors are placed under oath and questioned by the judge and the attorneys.  One of the questions I always ask is, “The attorneys have told me they expect it will take [three days] to try this case.  Is there anyone on the panel who would find it an extreme hardship to serve on a jury that will take that long?”  (By the way, the vast majority of the jury trials over which I have presided lasted three days or less.)

Often, one or more of the jurors will tell me that they just can’t miss work for even another day.  I don’t ask them what happens if they become ill, or if the take vacation.  Then, I say something like this:

We live in a great country.  We have freedoms that most of the world cannot imagine in their wildest dreams.  And in return for all the marvelous benefits we receive, our country asks relatively little of us.  We are asked to vote.  We are required to pay our share of taxes.  Some of us are called upon to serve in the armed forces.  And, occasionally, we are asked to help resolve legal matters by serving as a juror.

Most of the time, after my “Nickel Speech”, the prospective juror will agree that he or she can find some way to do a citizen’s duty.  Occasionally, I have to decide whether the prospective juror may be so distracted by not being at work that he or she cannot pay attention to the trial.

I am heartened by the willingness of the vast majority of citizens called for jury duty that they are willing to participate in our system of justice.  It has been my privilege, for a quarter century, to join them in a quest for justice, one case at a time.

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Next week:  Gavels

Thursday, April 18, 2013

As a Judge, I know You Not!

Since I grew up in Sibley County, and practiced law and lived here since 1974, occasionally a person appears before me with whom I am acquainted. 

There have been times when such an acquaintance has appeared before me on a routine matter – a traffic ticket, for instance.  I am uncomfortable, but really can’t see sending the person away to come back another day before a different judge.

So I hear the matter and do my best to do justice for this person. I know what I would do if it were a stranger in my court.  For my acquaintance, I must be neither more lenient nor more strict, and avoid even the appearance of favoritism.

I am also a member of the Masonic Fraternity.  In the Seventh Degree in the Scottish Rite, I have played the part of a judge in Solomon’s Israel.  This judge is approached by two workers rebuilding the Temple, each asking the judge to give preference to his side in a matter to be heard by the judges that day.

Admonishing one of those workmen, my character has a line that summarizes the position of Masonry and my personal attitude when a person I know appears before me in my official capacity:  As a Fellow of the Craft, I call you Brother, but as a Judge, I know you not!

My position requires that I rise above my knowledge of the person before me and show no favoritism.  Or, as the judge in that Masonic degree I’m in says later, “[I] promise and vow that [I] will decide justly and impartially whatever matters of difference may be submitted to [me] without fear or favor or the hope or promise of reward.”

Without fear or favor.  Wow.  Not only would it be improper to decide with the hope of gaining some personal advantage, I must make the correct decision even in the face of possible unpleasant consequences.  Even if that means I may have to explain myself the next time I’m up for election. 

As a man, a Mason and a judge, I know that I, like all human beings, have fallen short of the mark.  That is no excuse to quit trying, however.  I have taken an obligation to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Minnesota.  I do my best, every day, to fulfill that oath.

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Next week:  We Live in a Great Country.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Just Another Day at the Office

Even though I try to judge every day as well as possible, after a certain length of time, the position can become routine.  The cases are, for the most part, common and unremarkable.  The attorneys who appear before me are competent and reasonable.  It can be tempting to go on autopilot.

To the people who appear in Court, it is possibly the most important day of their lives. 

To the judge, it may be just “another day at the office.”

I must remind myself that everyone who appears before me expects to win.  If they don’t expect to win, they deserve to have Justice, which means they must be heard.  They deserve to know that the judge has heard their side and considered it seriously.

Even though I have a reputation of moving calendars along quickly, it is the rare case that I don’t ask, “Is there anything else I should know?”  When the person (usually but not always, a non-lawyer) starts to ramble, I try to summarize what I’ve heard from them and then ask, “Does that accurately state your position?”  That is often enough for them to know that I have heard what they have said.  I may not agree with them, and rarely will I announce my decision at that time, but the important thing is to let the parties know I have heard and understood the argument they are making.

A colleague told me of a survey that was conducted in his courthouse.  People coming out of conciliation court – small claims court where no lawyers are allowed – were asked about their experience.  One lady was livid.  She complained that the judge had not listened to her.  He had not let her tell her side of the story.  The whole experience was a travesty.

The interesting thing, however, was that her opponent had not appeared for Court.  He was in default.  She had won! 

But, she felt she had not been heard. 

It’s just another one of the balancing acts that judges face every day:  Keep the calendar moving so the cases are heard in a timely manner while at the same time ensuring that the citizens who appear before us have their day in Court.

So, we strive to judge as if it were our first day on the bench.  We strive to judge as if it were our last day on the bench.  We strive to judge so that this day, if it’s the only day that is considered, will find us good and competent administrators of Justice.

Because, for many who appear before us, it is their first day in court, their last day in court and their most important day in court. 

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Next week:  I Know You Not!