For most lawyers, the only judges we really think of as real judges are the judges who were already sitting comfortably on the bench when we first stood awkwardly before it. These were mysterious all-powerful first-nameless creatures of indeterminate age and unknown origin. Having only seen them in their presumptive natural habitat, it was impossible to imagine that they had, or even had any desire to have, a life outside the courtroom. We all likely remember when, as intrepid young lawyers, we first encountered one of these judicial beasts out in the wild (e.g., at the movies or the grocery store). A singularly unsettling experience brought about by our brains’ inability to orient us to a reality in which Old Judge Soandso exists as a real person.
The first time I took the bench as an intrepid young judge was also a somewhat disorienting experience. Not only was the view from the bench both literally and figuratively different than what I had been used to from counsel table, but I didn’t feel like I was sure those real judges must have felt when they first took the bench. I don’t know if I expected to suddenly feel “judgey” or what, but when I didn’t, I did the only thing I could do - I faked it. I pretended to be the judge. Lawyers and litigants had the courtesy to pretend right back until, over time, we all more or less got used to it. Maybe that’s how it was for the real judges as well. Maybe they didn’t ascend to the bench fully formed as the judicial icons they were by the time I got there. Maybe they had to figure it out along the way just like the rest of us.
I can’t talk a decision-challenged criminal defendant out of taking an unwinnable case to trial the way Judge Corey could (a/k/a the “if you go to prison, you’re gonna’ end up as housekeeper to Godzilla” speech). I don’t have Judge McAnulty’s ability to stop a lawyer (and that lawyer’s heart) just by looking at them over the top of my glasses. I can’t make “you may be remanded to custody” sound anywhere near as courtly and welcoming as Judge Schroering or Judge Shobe could. I’m not as kindhearted as Judge O’Bannon or as smart as Judge Potter, and while I might actually be as funny as Judge Schneider, I can’t do whatever it was that Judge Ewing did that made lawyers want to do and be their absolute best whenever they appeared before her. But the judge I end up being will, hopefully, be the good parts of me well informed by what I have had the good sense to adopt and adapt from those who came before me. This judicial legacy is a great and much appreciated gift. It’s what allows for the possibility that, to a generation of lawyers who don’t know any better because they didn’t know me when I wasn’t Judge Chauvin, I might someday be one of those real judges they tell the next generation of lawyers about.
There are, of course, judges and lawyers who from the very beginning of their legal careers exude complete confidence in their abilities. Maybe they are as good as they appear to think they are. Then again, maybe they’re just @$$holes. When I said that I “faked” it at the beginning, what I meant was that I showed up every day and worked hard all day to try and figure out what I was doing. Not being sure of yourself and knowing that you don’t already know everything is more than OK, it’s part of what motivates you to keep showing up and keep working hard. It doesn’t mean you’re not a “real” judge or a “real” lawyer if you never get to the point in your legal career where you have 100% confidence in your abilities. It means that you are probably just as real as it gets.