What it Takes to be a Judge

May 16, 2018 § 2 Comments

In my 45 years in the legal profession, I have never seen so many contested judge races. There are eighteen chancellors retiring out of 52 total; that means we are losing 37% of our chancellors to retirement, among them some of the most experienced and wisest.

There are vacant chancery judge posts scattered around the state, and lawyers are vying to fill them. If you’re wanting to become a chancellor, you might want to give some thought not only to what are the duties of the job, but also what are some of the nuances.

Here are some of my personal, random thoughts on the role of a chancery court judge, first posted in May, 2015:

  • The judge’s first duty is to the law. The judge has to be blind to who the parties are, and to who represents them, and let the facts lead him to a decision consistent with the applicable law. That sounds obvious, but it can be difficult to do.
  • The judge has to be dispassionate, but understanding of the foibles of human nature. A wrathful judge who hurls moralistic thunderbolts at the parties is, in my opinion, an ineffective judge. It’s better to craft an effective solution to a problem than to dispense punishment with judgmental platitudes. People come to court hoping for a pragmatic, wise solution, not another layer of problems laid on by the court.
  • What lawyers and the public want most is a judge who is fair and follows the law. Fail on either count, and you fail as a judge. A chancellor can never pick a side or a conclusion and reason back through the facts and law to get to that preconceived notion. The facts and law of the case dictate a ruling, not vice versa.
  • It takes a sure, confident, competent command of the rules of evidence to be a judge. If you have tried enough cases, you know what I mean. In fact, if you have little or no trial experience, I really don’t see how you could pull off being a chancellor. Lack of evidentiary skills will show in the work product. A judge who is usually wrong in evidentiary rulings or who waffles on every ruling will lose respect of the lawyers, and probably develop a history of reversals.
  • Speaking of reversals, two things apply. One is that a consistent history of reversals is a symptom of not following the law and/or not paying attention to the facts. Two is that the chancellor must rule based on what the facts and law dictate, and never with a concern to avoid reversal.
  • Those two may sound inconsistent, but the common thread is to follow the law and to apply it appropriately to the facts in evidence.
  • The judge must always be vigilant to see that justice is done. That may require a sua sponte appointment of a GAL, or inquiring behind a PSA, or scrutinizing actions of executors, guardians, conservators, and lawyers.
  • The judge must make sure that probate matters are being handled diligently, and free of any misconduct.
  • The chancellor must not let lawyers, particularly old lions, push him or her around. The judge controls the conduct of the case, and absolutely controls the courtroom. That does not mean that the judge is a tyrant, but firm, assertive behavior is required, and when the lawyers get accustomed to it, respect ensues.
  • Ethics are critically important. Even the appearance of impropriety is forbidden. It requires a thorough knowledge and observance of the Canons of Judicial Conduct to be a successful judge.
  • One of the side-effects of ethical behavior is isolation. The old camraderie with lawyers comes to an end.
  • A crucial thing to remember is that demeanor is vitally important. A judge should be rational, wise, kind, understanding, respectful, and even-handed. A judge should try never to be impatient, rude, sarcastic, or erratic. Lawyers who appear before you are still your colleagues who deserve your respect. The lawyer you mistreat and humiliate in the courtroom may likely be your next opponent.
  • Another reason that demeanor is important is that people in the courtroom are observing you closely. There is not a judge’s frown, grimace, smile, nod, sigh, or rolling of the eyes that someone does not note.
  • One of the hardest things to do consistently is to be patient. That is not easy when a lawyer is stumbling and fumbling through some routine matter, or must be shown the proper way to handle estate matters time and again.
  • Dishonesty can never be tolerated, and must be dealt with swiftly and decisively.

Other judges may have a different take, and I welcome their input.

§ 2 Responses to What it Takes to be a Judge

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