The Circuit Court Judges Committee on Continuing Judicial Education once invited me to be the luncheon speaker at our annual Judicial College. They wanted me to be a luncheon speaker?! That’s the guy who is amusing enough to accompany buffet chicken parmesan, but not so engaging as to keep people from eating it while they chat with the other people at their table and return all of the e-mails that piled up during the morning sessions when they were actually listening to substantive speakers. Did they think of me as mere fluff? Light entertainment? Chautauqua Muzak? Some kind of easy- listening legal lecture ditty to provide a pleasant non- intrusive background melody to fill the space between the salad and the cheesecake? They wanted me for that?! I accepted immediately.
The assigned subject matter of my luncheon discourse was to be something along the lines of the collected wit and wisdom of a seasoned Circuit Court judge – me - which they titled: “30 Tips In 30 Minutes.” I can only assume that they must have settled on the topic before they settled on the speaker. Otherwise, they would have gone with “5 Tips in 5 Minutes” or, given the degree to which I love to listen to me, “5 Tips in 60 Minutes.” Much to my surprise, and while some of the tips were definitely wittier and wisdomier than others, I managed to fill my aphorism quota. Knowing that I wouldn’t have time to address all of these judging jewels during a thirty-minute address, for ease of digestion (as they say in the luncheon speaker business) I broke them down into categories: The 5 B’s (Nos. 1-5); Some 2 Dos (Nos. 6-13); Some Don’ts (Nos. 14-18); If - thens (Nos. 19- 24); and Shoulds (Nos. 25-30).
The paradoxical thing about giving a speech giving advice to other people is that you can dish it out without having to take it. There have certainly been times when (with the notable exception of No. 18) I have not lived up to either the spirit or letter of my guidelines for good judging. The ones I violate most often are those I ignore mainly to my own detriment. I forget to take breaks (No. 9); I don’t go on vacation (No. 11); and I’ve ruined five or six seersucker suits (No. 28). There are others which I violate to someone else’s detriment. I am not always on time (No. 1 usually because of No. 29); I sometimes sit on a case way too long when I can’t find the answer instead of giving the parties an answer so they can go on and get the answer from the Court of Appeals if needs be (it’s ok to No. 23 but you have to No. 7); and on rare but memorable occasions I lose my temper (No. 3). I do, however, practice what I preached when it comes to some/most of the other (with the notable inclusion of No. 18). I put a tremendous amount of work into creating and maintaining a well-run docket (that’s No. 24 by requiring No. 8 without doing violence to No. 4 or No. 14 while keeping No. 22 firmly in mind and encouraging No. 30). I also eat lunch (No. 10).
Based on the feedback I received at the Judicial College after everyone was fed, I am pleased to say that the offerings I served up appear to have hit the spot (I assume in large part because No. 21 doesn’t apply to me, but with a sneaking suspicion that they may have been No. 16ing me). The warm response I received from the lunchtime crowd (No. 13) when I walked off the dais was greatly appreciated but felt a little too much like one of those de rigueur standing ovations I get from the courtroom crowd whenever I walk out onto the bench (wearing old No. 27 backed up by No. 17).
Thank you. Good night. Please don’t forget to tip your server. (No. 3).
25. You should always introduce yourself to and acknowledge the litigants.
26. You should only send people to prison who you think we should be afraid of, not mad at or frustrated with.
27. You should always wear your robe in the courtroom.
28. You should wear something other than a suit to work. Otherwise whatever you wear under your robe will wear out much faster than whatever you would otherwise be wearing with it such that soon your suit pants will no longer match your suit coat.
29. You should add an additional ten minutes to the time it used to take you to get in and out of the courthouse.
30. You should encourage people to tell you what they honestly think whenever they honestly think you need to hear it.
Everybody knows that lawyers “practice” law. People have a right to expect a base level of competence from lawyers regardless of how long they have been practicing but they might also assume, rightly or wrongly, that the more “practice” the lawyer gets, the better (s)he gets at his or her job. The same may be true but isn’t expressed the same way about judges - judges don’t “practice” judging. People have a right to expect a base level of competence from judges regardless of how long they have been on the bench, but they might also assume, rightly or wrongly, that the more time a judge spends judging, the better (s)he gets at his or her job. Obviously, some lawyers and judges work harder and get better at it than others. Judges are very fortunate in Kentucky to have the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Circuit Court Judges Association provide us with the resources, administrative support, and first rate continuing legal education that makes getter better easier. Our greatest resource, however, is each other. Shared experience is a great teacher and provides many teachable moments we can all learn from. It is so beneficial, and often hysterical, to have people who know exactly what you’re going through to talk with, learn from, vent to, counsel and be counseled by. That’s when you want No. 22 so you can get No. 30 so you can No. 5 in the best possible way.