Some of the most challenging cases for a trial judge happen in conciliation court, or small claims court. When I first took the bench in 1988, the maximum amount that could be claimed in conciliation court was something like $1000. Now, it is $15,000! Small claims, indeed!
These cases can involve very complicated issues of law and of fact. Since lawyers generally are not allowed to appear in conciliation court, the litigants may not understand what evidence is required to be presented to succeed. For instance, simply because that used car that was purchased has a major problem with the engine or transmission after only 200 miles is usually not enough to prove that it was defective when sold. Some kind of expert testimony may be required.
Also, folks often do not have a realistic idea of how much they have been damaged. One claimant alleged that his neighbor had cut down a dead tree that was on the claimant’s property. He computed his damages based on the amount one would pay for a bag of firewood at the local convenience store. That is far, far more than proper measure of damages for the tree, which would be its value as it stood on the claimant’s land. (The claimant lost this case on other grounds, in any event.)
In many conciliation court cases, the defendant does not even appear. In those cases, the plaintiff wins by default. I recall one case where the Girl Scouts of America were suing a mother of a scout who had received over $1000 in Girl Scout cookies and had not paid for them. I really wish the mom had appeared – I wonder what the other side of that story was!
I am sometimes asked what I think of the television judges, like Judge Judy. I must confess, I have tried to watch that show, but usually end up turning it off after only a few minutes. If I treated people as rudely as that judge does on television, I would rightly be reported to the judges’ ethics board. I also worry that people may hesitate to bring a legitimate claim because they fear being ridiculed by the judge.
Because for those people, it is not just an entertaining television show or another day at the office for the judge. It is a very important day in their lives, and they deserve to have their claims considered with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled.