Thursday, July 25, 2013

Do Some Justice!

Occasionally, I’ll stop for coffee before heading to court in Gaylord.  I will often get a chuckle or a smile when I rise to leave and say, “Got to be going – it’s time to do some Justice!”

I have to admit that I milk that phrase a lot.  For a long time, it was just a clever quip.  Then I took some time to reflect on what it means to “Do Justice.”  Though I may appear to make light of the responsibilities of my position, I must and do take them most seriously. 

Many times at work, I simply need to decide – put an end to the conflict between opposing parties.  Once the matter at issue is determined, these folks can get on with their lives.  The actual decision – who “won” or “lost” – is not always critical or vital to the parties.  They simply need assistance in making a decision so they can get on with their lives.

Other times, the quality of my decision makes a significant and life-changing difference in people’s lives.  Contested child custody cases or commitment hearings for mentally ill or sexually dangerous persons, among many others, fall into this category.

Recently, I made the connection between my wisecrack and one of my favorite verses from the Bible:  Micah 6:8 (New American Standard Bible):  He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?

What a great maxim to guide the work of a judge!  We need to strive to balance justice and kindness, but always remembering that we are required to do Justice first.  But even when we must make a decision that is painful for a party, we must never do so in a mean or callous manner.  We strive to be as kind, courteous and respectful as we can while following the law and attempting, as best we can, to do Justice.

For me, personally, the final words of that Bible verse are a reminder that I am blessed to be able to be in a position where I can help people who appear before me.  It reminds me that humility, especially when holding a position that demands the respect of those who hold the office, as well as those who appear before me, is essential.  

And, it reminds me that I can call upon God for assistance.  I’ll give Him credit for any wise decisions I have made, and I’ll take responsibility for the poor decisions.  In those cases, I obviously did not listen carefully enough.

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Next week:  Everyone Leaves the Courtroom Happy

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Do

There are a couple of pleasant duties that fall within my job description.  Uniting a couple in marriage is one such duty. 

As an official judicial duty, a judge may marry people in the courthouse, during office hours, at no charge to the couple (except, of course, for the marriage license).  I cannot put off regularly scheduled court cases to perform a wedding, but we can usually find a few minutes during the day to recite the vows. 

Wedding parties have arrived at the courthouse in suits and wedding dresses and in jeans and t-shirts.  They have come with friends and family and I have had to recruit a best man and maid of honor from the court staff to witness the wedding.  Some have been so young that I have had to sign an order to permit the County Recorder to issue a marriage license.  One groom was in handcuffs, as the jail had brought him to the courthouse to marry his fiancĂ©e.  On another occasion, I went to a jail to perform the ceremony for a man who had been sentenced to life in prison for murder.

On other occasions, I have been asked to perform weddings away from the courthouse and outside of regular business hours.  For these weddings, a judge is permitted to charge a fee for services. 

I have performed weddings at golf courses and restaurants; at parks and in living rooms and in back yards.  One of my memorable weddings was performed on an island in Lake Minnetonka!

There are no magic words or a required script to memorialize a marriage ceremony.  The form I have used is brief and to the point.  As I tell folks who ask, it will take about five and a half minutes, “if I talk real slow.”

Some couples will write their own vows, which is very nice.  Others will have an appropriate reading.  Music may be a part of the service, but often is not. 

I will tell the couples and their guests that marriage is regarded as a civil contract that imposes duties on each of them.  I ask them to promise that they will love and honor, comfort and cherish each other so long as they both shall live.

And I end the ceremony by pronouncing “by the power vested in me by the state of Minnesota, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

That’s a pretty nice duty that judges are asked to perform!

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Next Week:  Do Some Justice

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fortune Cookies

Several months after I had been sworn in as a Trial Court Judge, I was sent to the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada – Reno for a three-week orientation course.  This program was designed to help new judges acquire the basic skills of judging as we assumed our duties.  (Budget restraints have eliminated this valuable skills program for new judges in Minnesota today.)

So off I went, to live in a college dorm for three weeks along with several dozen judges from across the country, and even from other countries.  One of the judges I hung around with the most was from Japan.

The days were jammed full of classes, and attendance was strictly required.  There were no slackers among us!  We would be presented with a lecture on criminal procedure or evidence or ethics and would then retire in small groups of about a half-dozen judges to discuss.  That is where the real learning took place – discussing and debating and learning from each other. 

While the work week days were scheduled very tightly, the weekends, however, were open.  As our children were still in school, Patty could not come out to join me, so I was on my own from Friday afternoon till Monday morning.

One weekend, I visited an aunt and uncle in Modesto, and my best friend from law school in Fresno.  That trip included a short visit to Yosemite National Park – a gorgeous jewel of the national park system.

The other weekend, I drove completely around Lake Tahoe, including a stop at the Donner Memorial near Truckee California – another beautiful place with a tragic history.

The scenery of Lake Tahoe was truly stunning.  I really wished that Patty could have enjoyed the day with me.  I was feeling pretty lonely.

Around supper time, I stopped at a Chinese restaurant.  Seated by myself at a table, I watch couples coming in, and felt more and more lonely and homesick.

After my meal I looked at my fortune cookie.  It was the only fortune cookie I have ever opened that literally brought tears to my eyes.  It read: 

You are deeply attached to your home and family. 

Another fortune:  A few years ago, I joined some other judges at a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  That fortune is on my computer monitor at work, and has brought smiles from visiting judges using my office:

Your judgment is a little off.  Rely on friends. 

Sometimes the cookies are right, sometimes, they are a little off….. 

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Next Week:  I do

Thursday, July 4, 2013

All Men Are Created Equal

As we celebrate our Nation’s birthday, I pause to reflect on the miracle that resulted in the formation of the greatest nation on earth. 

Consider Thomas Jefferson’s remarkable prose:

We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.  That among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. 

After the stirring prelude in the Declaration, a “history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” is presented in 26 grievances against the King of England.  These, largely, deal with the King’s disregarding the law and imposing his will on the colonies. 

The principles of the Declaration and subsequently of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) clearly set forth the philosophy that this shall be a government of laws, not men.
So, to ensure as best they could that one man or group of men could not so control the government to impose their will, the founding fathers instituted a system of checks and balances, creating a legislative, executive and judicial branch.

Our country has evolved over the 237 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  When Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal,” neither he nor any of the founding fathers included women or Native Americans in that definition.  They are now included.  Slaves were not included, either.  The institution of slavery ended about 87 years later.

I am proud to have served as a District Court Judge where folks have their first exposure to the third branch of government.  I marvel at the wisdom, courage and fortuity that guided the founders of this wonderful country to establish the framework that has survived strife, argument and even civil war to give us all the blessings we enjoy today.  I am humbled that the citizens of this state have entrusted me with the awesome duty, responsibility and privilege to act as the arbiter of their most important disputes.

As a take a few days off from my judge work this week to spend time with my family, I will take some time to reflect on the good fortune we all have to have been born in a country which respects the rule of Law.  I invite you to do the same.

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Next week:  Fortune Cookies