Judges Acting Badly

What a difference 30 years makes in our criminal justice system!!

When I first started practicing criminal law in the late 70’s, I worked as both a prosecutor and a Public Defender.  I appeared before at least 60 different judges in the adult and juvenile courts.  The things I used to see…

Today, in the county where I practice in Minnesota the way judges conduct themselves has changed immensely–for the better.  What’s caused that?

1.  The number of judges has increased so there isn’t the collegiality that used to exist and allow bad judges to hide.  Today, their own colleagues on the bench may “out” them.

2.  The media pays more attention today and watches them closer.  Also, citizens’ groups place observers in the courtrooms.  Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) monitor the judge’s courtrooms, take notes, and exposing any outrageous behavior.

3.  The state Judicial Board of Professional Responsibility investigates more cases of judicial bad behavior.  In many cases of misconduct the board has even removed judges from work.

4.  Years ago, judges were given more respect and deference.  (I suspect many other elected officials are treated differently also)  Lawyers and others working in the courtrooms rarely reported misconduct.

So what are some of the things those judges of years ago did?

I remember the “favors” that lawyers did for judges.  Lunches, golf outings, Christmas gifts, paid-for drinks at Happy Hours, invitations to expensive parties, and all the genuflecting that lawyers did to judges.  All of this was done to curry favor–and it often worked.  Two judges I practice before would get upset if they didn’t have a free lunch invitation for the day!

One judge demanded so much work out of his court reporter that he called her in the hospital while she was in labor with her first child.  He asked if she’d completed a project.  The judge never even considered the reporter’s time and privacy–it was accepted that judges could do that.

Another judge was giving his law clerk instructions, but she had to go to the bathroom.  No problem.  He followed her into the bathroom and continued to talk to her.

A female judge told me recently, that when she was a law clerk, years before, all the clerks used to gather in a vacant courtroom for a daily meeting.  At every meeting, one of the judges would come into the room, go behind a particular female law clerk, and squeeze her breasts.  When finished, he left for his chambers.

The funniest judge I recall had an unusual way of announcing her verdicts.  (I wrote about him and other crazy courtroom antics in my first book, Reprisal.)  In misdemeanor cases when the accused waived a jury, the judge would listen to all the evidence.  He’d pause to think about his decision and, while doing this, would duck down behind his bench.  After a while, two hand puppets would rise above the bench, but no judge.  One puppet was green and the other red.  Both stuck at the end of his hands.  If the verdict was guilty, the judge would make the red puppet talk and say, “Guilty” in a high-pitched voice.  Green puppet would announce a not guilty verdict.  With that, he made his rulings.

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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