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!