On January 2, 2015, at 2:00 p.m., the members of the 2015 Jefferson Circuit Court term were (re)sworn into office. On January 2, 2015, at 1:30 p.m., the Jefferson Circuit Court Administrator let me know that I, as Chief Judge, would be called upon at 2:00 p.m. to say a few words on behalf of my Circuit Court colleagues to the assembled public officials, blood-relatives, well-wishers, and judicial groupies.
Knowing me, she knew that if she gave me too much time to prepare a speech, then I would take up too much time giving the speech I had prepared. The result was not only an event that began and ended on schedule, but a brand-new exception to the hearsay rule. The “short-notice speech” exception recognizes the inherent trustworthiness of unprepared remarks (i.e., made without sufficient time for either embellishment or self-censorship).
For those of you who were too young (or not born yet), lived out of state, were bed-ridden, or had a family emergency that prevented you from attending the aforementioned Swearamony™ in person, here is the text of my semi-extemporaneous demi-speech.
Two Score and Two Years Ago
On behalf of my colleagues, we thank you for the opportunity to serve on the Jefferson Circuit Court. When we say, “thank you” what we really mean is – THANK YOU! I know it may seem like there are as many judges here in Jefferson County as there are stars in the sky, but the reality is that the opportunities to serve as a judge are relatively few and even farther between. So, all of us recognize not only how fortunate we are to have the chance to be a judge, but how fortunate we are to serve as a judge on the Circuit Court; that is: to have the best judge job there is.
Serving on the Circuit Court bench, in addition to be being surprisingly and sometimes wildly entertaining, is both intellectually satisfying and sincerely rewarding. It is the best public service job I have ever had. It is the best public service job I can imagine ever having - and not just because it comes with private bathroom and a reserved parking spot in the basement of the courthouse. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best: “There is no greater service one can provide to the community than that which is provided through service on the circuit court.” Profound words. Deeply profound words. Or at least I thought so when I made them up a few minutes ago and then, just now, attributed them to Abraham Lincoln.
To be fair, I did say “perhaps” Abraham Lincoln said it best. But what I think President Lincoln was trying to say (or would have been trying to say if he had actually said it) is that service on the Circuit Court is all about service. Service to the Constitution, to the law, and to the litigants and lawyers and the people in the greater community who are impacted by the decisions we are called on to make.
I was gratified to discover when I was first appointed to the bench how appreciative the people already there were for their opportunity, and how mindful they were of the obligation that comes with that opportunity. I have since that time been inspired every day by judges who come to work every day thinking about how to do the job they love even better. So, I thank them for their outstanding example of service, and on behalf of my colleagues, we thank you for the opportunity to serve on the Jefferson Circuit Court.
The key to truly outstanding extemporaneous speaking is exhaustive preparation. Sure, “off the cuff” remarks can be good or even great on occasion, and the high-wire working without a net adrenalin rush you get on those occasions can be very intoxicating. That being said, and while I understand how difficult it can be to do well, I am still an extremely harsh critic when it is done poorly or, more precisely, when it is done on the wrong occasion. Think about all of the cringe-worthy wedding toast you’ve heard offered “off-the-cuff” or even “from the heart”. First of all, it’s a wedding - not a #@%*! surprise party. All of those people knew long before they were handed the microphone by somebody’s drunk uncle that they were going to have to say something. The ensuing five to fifteen minutes of rambling non-sequiturs aside, it’s the fact that they didn’t spend any time thinking about what they might say that’s the problem. It is a missed opportunity and it’s disrespectful to the occasion.
The same holds true for lawyers and judges when it’s our turn to talk. It is neither necessary, nor preferred for that matter, that we give a speech we prepared for the occasion, but we do have to be prepared to speak. To do otherwise is disrespectful to the occasion even on those rare occasions when those unprepared remarks somehow come out remarkably well.