CONFESSIONS of an Angry Judge

By O'Brien, Gregory C., Jr. | Judicature, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

CONFESSIONS of an Angry Judge

O'Brien, Gregory C., Jr., Judicature

I used to be an angry judge. The reasons for my anger were real enough. Being a judge is stressful. For the past 10 years, though, I have been mellow. In deciding to change, I first had to articulate the causes of my stress and then to determine which were within my ability to minimize. (If some of my complaints sound petty, or unreasonably harsh, they in fact were. That was part of my self-discovery.)

I. The reasons I gave for my stress (partial list)

A. Low (but chronic) stress factors

1. Doing it on the fly. By the nature of courtroom proceedings, most decisions from the bench must be made without benefit of preparation, reflection, or consultation.

2. Monday-morning quarterbacks Since it occurs in public view and on the record, such decision making is subject to potential second-guessing from all quarters. I am supposed to rule correctly. Maybe I will look foolish or ignorant if I get it wrong. People will talk. Lawyers will compare notes.

3. Career exposure. Always lurking in the background is potential criticism from the court of appeal, the judicial Performance Commission, the Los Angeles Times, or, Heaven forbid, an election opponent.

4. Peer pressure. The system has created expectations for timely case disposition. judges feel pressured to "move the merchandise." case management is subject to a subtle form of peer review-how are my "numbers"; am I measuring up?

5. Wounded pride. No one enjoys receiving notice of a writ or published reversal. My visceral reaction is that the appellate court surely must have misunderstood the facts.

6. Ungracious advocates. There is no salt in the wound worse than that of a smug petitioner/appellant helpfully informing me in front of a crowded courtroom of a just-issued writ or reversal.

B. High stress factors

7. Time pressures. It is hard to suffer fools gladly when my courtroom is packed with people wanting my urgent attention. The feeling is compounded if my jury is waiting impatiently for the morning calendar to end and four unexpected ex parte motions come in from a dark "buddy court." There are also few irritations that compare with watching the ticking clock as I listen to seemingly pointless testimony, meanwhile knowing that a stack of call slips, orders to sign, and tomorrow's huge motion for summary judgment are all waiting for me in chambers at the evening recess.

8. Insufficient resources. Few things can compare with being asked to rule on 250 objections to the evidence in a motion for summary judgment (a chore outside the job description of my research attorney), with the knowledge that justice Turner (a local stickler on this subject) is lying in the weeds waiting to make me an object lesson if I try to take a short cut.

9. Lack of civility. What has happened to simple manners? The only thing I dislike more than reading an endless exchange of attorney correspondence effectively shouting "you're a liar" is watching attorneys misbehave in front of a jury. How many times must I say, "Gentlemen, please," before I am allowed to say, "If you do that one more time, I will stab you"?

10. Attorney incompetence. How I hate "the dog ate my homework." The rules of court are not rocket science, but they might as well be if lawyers don't read them. How hard is it to file timely briefs, to come to court at the appointed hour, to give appropriate notice to the opposing party, to tab and attach the correct exhibits, or to prepare a declaration on personal knowledge? These same people are regulars on the ex parte calendar, rushing in for a continuance of some event or for Calif. Code of Civ. Proc. 473 relief. I need a sign that says, "Don't make your lack of organization become my emergency." Sometimes I wish I could give them a grade: "D- see me."

11. Attorney impertinence. Worse than incompetence is impertinence. Worse still is impertinence by the incompetent, a combination that persistently remains in fashion. …

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