Tell It To The Judge
It has been suggested that some judges grow when they take the bench while others just swell. It’s good to be the judge. People stand up when I walk in the courtroom. They have to ask my permission to sit or speak and, whether out of respect or the fear of getting tased by my courtroom Deputy, immediately come to me when I call them. Lawyers refer to me as “Your Honor” and dutifully laugh at my witty banter both on and off the bench.
If someone may have considered me to be “a little slow” when I was a lawyer, they have to describe me as “deliberate” now that I’m a judge. “Mean” becomes “no nonsense," and “goofy” become “eccentric.” However, the most intoxicating, and therefore the most dangerous, thing that happens when a lawyer becomes a judge is that people generally and lawyers particularly stop telling them “no.” In fact, they pretty much stop telling them anything.
It is tempting for the judge to take it from their silence that what (s)he is doing and how (s)he’s doing it is “right” every time. Maybe so - but in the absence of hearing what people really think, judges are constantly in peril of sliding down the slippery slope that goes from asking lawyers what they think should be done, to telling them what to do, to demanding it be done, to berating them for not doing it right or, at least to the judge’s satisfaction. I know no lawyer wants to appear before that kind of judge. I also know that no judge, including me, wants to be that kind judge.
Being mostly human, I am well aware that I am not always right, nor do I have the great idea market cornered. The best I can do is the best I can do. However, my best can always be better if people are willing and able to let me know what they honestly think. The best, and most welcome, anti-inflammatory available to combat judicial swell is very frank and very specific feedback.
The Judicial Evaluation conducted by the Louisville (and now Kentucky) Bar Association provides members of bar one of the few opportunities to provide that kind of feedback to the local bench. Unfortunately, although it is not unhelpful, I find it to be of very limited practical value. This may be because so few lawyers take the time necessary to complete it or, because whatever the results are, neither the score nor the scoring gives me any useful insight into exactly why I scored the way I did. The comments, many of which are very very personal, are generally too general to be meaningful. “You are a wonderful judge” and “you are an *&^%!!! idiot” are equally unhelpful - although by no means equally unappreciated.
Having accepted the fact that I couldn’t make people do a better job telling me how to do a better job through the Judicial Evaluation process, I was inspired to create the “Tell it to the Judge” page on my website. The page is intended to provide a real opportunity for lawyers, litigants and pretty much anyone who owns or has access to a computer, to freely express that which social mores and local legal custom might otherwise stifle. I like to think of it as the opportunity to speak the truth without fear of consequences. The are only four rules: (1) All comments sent through the website are submitted anonymously. If you want to remain anonymous then best not sign your name to your submission; (2) Do not use the website to communicate with the court about a pending case. All submissions are screened by the Division 8 staff for ex parte communications; (3) Try to be constructive (i.e., don’t just write “you suck”); and (4) If you can’t not write something mean, then at least try to make it funny.
I have been pleased, if not a little surprised, to find that the vast majority of anonymous comments left on the website have been positive, affirming, and helpful. I have tried not to be discouraged or dismissive of the comments that have been mean but not funny. Although frustrating, and a little hurtful, I have tried to find something helpful about those too. For me, having a mechanism through which people can share their honest thoughts and true feelings is important. It’s one of the ways to help me ensure that I continue to take this job seriously without taking myself too seriously.
 The record should reflect the fact that I am and have always been hilarious. I was making people laugh long before I became a judge. They just laugh louder and longer now.
Judges are like blue jeans. They start out really stiff and uncomfortable but, through daily wear over time, they finally get to be where they are juuuuuuuuuust right. Notably, the window of time between the point where they are perfectly worn in and when they start to wear out is relatively short. I started thinking seriously about retiring from the bench when I felt as though I might be approaching the end of the middle of that comfort zone. I love this job. Because I love this job, as hesitant as I am to leave, I definitely don’t want to overstay. As I explained to a group of lawyers, “I lack humility, not self-awareness.” People telling me about me has contributed greatly to the latter while helping to keep the former in check.
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