Are Judges Really That Awful? Yes!
Judges are the kings and queens of the legal system, literally looking at the populace they rule over from perches high up on a mahogany dais. Referred to as “Your Honor,” they demand constant verbal genuflection and scurrying about in response their commands that is the equivalent of bowing and scraping.
“God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” the U.S. Marshal solemnly intones after the gavel come down, a roomful of people stand up, and the nine justices of the Supreme Court enter the hallowed marble fiefdom where they preside.
In federal court, you don’t go anywhere or do anything without asking for permission. “May it please the court?” “May I approach?” “May I confer with my client?” “May I ask for a brief recess so that I can go to the bathroom and throw up because even though I am deathly ill you made me show up anyway?”
Judges are the closest thing that America has to royalty. Their power is enormous: what they do changes the courses of fortunes and lives. They can award millions, even billions, they can send people to prison for the rest of their lives—or to their deaths. Often their decisions bind future generations. Because judges have so much power and responsibility, we assume they are eminently deserving of the honor and authority conferred upon them.
“Sober as a judge,” as the saying goes. By and large, the public assumes these mighty, black-robed figures are rational, deliberative, respectful.
Not at all.
Judges are bananas. Not all of them, but many. Many, many, many. I know because I have appeared in front of them.
That is particularly true of federal judges who are appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and given life tenure. With this status and job security many judges become puffed up with self-importance, accustomed to a daily life where everyone—the court clerk, the court reporter, the law clerks, the parties—hangs on their every word, laughs on cue at their jokes, and races to obey their commands. That daily, breathtaking level of deference allows judges to indulge in their worst impulses.
The judge in my novel is a racist, sexist pig. He is so odious that some friends who read early drafts complained that he is unrealistic. Reader: he’s real—albeit an amalgamation of the top ten most terrible. More than eighty percent of what comes out of this fictional judge’s mouth has been said to me or to one of my colleagues by a real judge.
Here’s a sampling, nearly all of it shouted red-faced and screaming:
“Honey, did you hear what I said” (I was trying, yet again, to finish my sentence after the judge repeatedly cut me off);
“Are you stripping in my courtroom?” (I was taking off my suit jacket on a hot day) ;
“Sit down and shut up” (I was five minutes into my cross examination of a key government witness);
“I have two daughters, a nice one and a feisty one. Guess which one you remind me of?” (I was insufficiently contrite after coming to court crying and without that darned suit jacket. I accidentally left it in a different courtroom where the jury had just convicted my client);
And my favorite: “I am not a potted plant! I am not a potted plant!” (This time I was listening in amazement. The target was the prosecutor, who was politely explaining that the separation of powers clause of the Constitution meant that she didn’t have to tell the judge why she was dismissing a case).
Yes, judges say all of this and more. They ogle, harass, hiss, yell, and browbeat. One judge who sat on the bench in downtown Los Angeles for more than 50 years was so indifferent to the law and so arbitrary in his decisions—in addition to being incredibly nasty—that I would tell my clients before sentencing: “you could get probation, or you could get 20 years.” Aghast, they would ask me if I could make a prediction in one direction or the other. “No,” I would say, “but let’s hope he liked what he had for lunch.” The harm this single jurist inflicted over those decades: to countless clients’ lives, to countless attorneys’ psyches, to the rule of law, was vast.
Of course, most judges are not this cruel and capricious. After graduating from law school, I clerked for a judge who was a fervent feminist, cared deeply about the causes and litigants whose fates he decided, and was an overall mensch. But assuming that this truly great man is the default denies reality. It also denies literature some truly great characters.
Courtroom dramas should reflect the full spectrum of judges’ biases, eccentricities, and jaw-drop worthy moments. All too often, the judge is a two-dimensional stereotype when in fact the judicial personality is a dominant force, for good and for ill, in what unfolds in the courtroom. Legal thrillers, at least in this one respect, should look more real life.
Lara Bazelon is the author of the thriller A Good Mother, which will be published on May 11. She spent seven years as a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles.