Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dreams of Judging Can be a Nightmare

You know the story about the patient relating a terrible nightmare he had had the previous night. “Doctor, it was horrendous. I dreamed you were my mother.” The doctor replied that indeed it was a disturbing dream. “What did you do after you awoke from the dream?” she asked. “I woke up in a cold sweat, took a shower and had breakfast.” “What did you have for breakfast?” asked the psychiatrist. “Coffee and a piece of toast.” “You call that a breakfast?”

A similar incident occurred in my home recently. At breakfast my wife told me about her frightful nightmare the night before. “I dreamed that I, not you, am the judge. There I was in my robes, and . . . ” What did you feel? I asked. “Don’t interrupt when I’m speaking.” “But I’m your husband, I always interrupt.” She then did something quite unexpected. She waved a finger in front of me. “One more outburst and you’ll be in contempt.” I let her go on. Finally she let me speak. “I read somewhere that . . . She interrupted . . . “that’s hearsay, inadmissible.” “But we are just having a discussion,” I said. “Overruled.” I said something else. The cat objected and she sustained the objection. I kept speaking and she repeated in a louder voice, “Sustained!” Was that her? I looked around to see if the cat had said anything.

Those readers who have not donned judicial robes might question whether my wife’s dream was in fact a nightmare. They might believe that the authority she exercised reflects the awesome power and respect real life judges command.

Let me set you straight through an example. I had this idea for a new law related reality show. Yes, I know that the recent reality show, “The Firm” went down in flames. Well what do you expect? The emphasis was on trial lawyers and their pathetic efforts to rout their opponents. Yawn. The show would have been a rousing success if the focus had been on the judges instead of the lawyers. My idea for a reality show is based on an old radio show, popular about 60 years ago, called “Queen for a Day” emceed by Jack Bailey.

It’s hard to believe, but in those days the contestants were only women. The winning contestant was the one with the most sympathetic hard luck story. “My job interview at the telephone company was a disaster. They were about to test my voice but as I sat down to speak into the microphone my nylons tore and I shrieked ‘operator.’! I didn’t get the job and now the bank is threatening to foreclose on my bungalow.”

The winner was crowned queen for the entire day. Jack Bailey would recite the itinerary for the magical day of the queen’s reign. “Your majesty will be chauffered to lunch at the Brown Derby on Vine Street, after which you will be whisked off to Bullock’s Wilshire, (now a law school) for an afternoon of shopping. A mid-afternoon snack at Pig N’ Whistle and later dinner and a show at the Mocambo where you will be escorted by Cesar Romero or George Raft, if you are not too tall. ”

So here’s my idea. A reality show that gives deserving lawyers who have lost a disproportionate share of cases due to bad rulings the opportunity to become “Judge for a Day.” The emcee will announce to the winner what is in store for her or him, and then we will actually witness the judge’s activities throughout the day. “Before sunup your Honor will be whisked off to the court house in early morning heavy traffic. Once at the courthouse you will wait for the private judge’s elevator, and wait and wait until you realize it doesn’t work and then climb ten flights of stairs to get to your chambers, where it is freezing cold and piles of motions sit on you desk waiting for your review.

But first you have a morning settlement conference. You patiently craft a settlement proposal that does justice for all parties. After you have gently cajoled and tried amiably to persuade the parties to settle, the recalcitrant lawyers and their obstinate clients mock your efforts, refuse to settle, or even talk to one another, threaten to file additional causes of action against each other and storm out of your chambers.

You then take the bench for the morning law and motion calendar and hear dozens of motions, few of which are written in English. These include a multitude of summary judgment motions one of which contains six thousand issues of disputed fact. The lawyers vilify one another in their briefs and oral argument.

Then you will continue with the trial you have been trying to conduct. You promised the jury it will end this day, but a key witness under subpoena has not appeared. The witness, a single working mother with three minor children is vital to the case, and the attorneys are pressing you to issue a bench warrant. A member of the press sitting in the courtroom is busily taking notes.

You take a recess and peruse in chambers the charges brought against you before the Judicial Performance Commission by the pro per against whom you sustained the demurrer to his complaint which alleged on information and belief that the mayor is trying to kill him.

It’s now time for lunch. You are due to install the officers of the Left Handed Lawyers Bar Association. You will arrive at the local hotel where the gala event is taking place just as they serve you the delectable entrĂ©e of chicken fried steak. That evening you attend a cocktail party sponsored by Citizens Against Judicial Abuse where guests cross-examine you about the Rodney King case and Judge Alito.” I could go on, but my show idea was rejected in favor of another show called “Test Pilot for a Day.”

This proves that being a judge is not all it’s cracked up to be. Our power is limited. Some people have real power. Take for example the baby naming official in the Czech Republic. Friends of mine who are citizens of that country recently had a baby. A Czech baby must have a name that is listed in the book of names. If the parents wish to name their baby some other name they must get approval from the official “Naming Person.” She decides whether or not the name is legitimate, not the baby mind you, but the baby’s name. Sure, you can name your baby whatever you wish despite the naming person’s disapproval, but try and get a birth certificate. My friends named their baby a name that does not appear in the book of names. Luckily, the Naming Person went along. My respect for the baby’s privacy does not permit me to reveal the name. Her gurgles and cooing could be monitored by governmental officials.

American judges do not have the power of the baby naming official. Sure, people stand up for us when we enter the courtroom but that is only because a bailiff orders them to. Standing up for us literally is far different than doing so metaphorically. Getting up when you are sitting down is annoying, but today people do it for everyone. Every performer, however mediocre, gets a standing ovation. Rock performers, opera singers, mimes, organ grinders, jugglers, weather forecasters--they all get standing ovations.

I think it impolite to leave as the curtain comes down at the opera for example. We can at least stay and express our appreciation for the performers, but is everyone deserving of a standing ovation? The person in front stands up and you have to stand up to see the singers bow. And soon the entire audience is on its feet. Elderly people have to be awakened and helped up by their caretakers. It’s as bad as attending a football game. A good play and everyone is on their feet screaming. I see most of the game by way of instant replays on the giant screens above the end-zones.

But, on the other hand, it sure makes the performers feel good. I therefore thought about instituting standing ovations during oral argument at the Court of Appeal. Not for the lawyer’s arguments mind you. Who is going to applaud? Clients seldom attend sessions of the Court of Appeal, and certainly not other lawyers in the courtroom who are far more concerned about their own cases. No, I wanted a standing ovation for the justices. In my division we are known for asking snappy, quirky questions. It might be a bit time consuming for the ovation to occur after each argument. But waiting until the end of the calendar leaves an empty courtroom save for the lawyers arguing the last case.

I guess this is just another forgettable idea. I then thought about encouraging sustained applauds when we take the bench at the opening of the court session. The “APPLAUSE” sign used on Jack Bailey’s Queen for a Day show might be available on E-Bay. I decided to sleep on this last idea before acting on it but had a terrible nightmare which convinced me to reject that idea as well.

I dreamed I was a lawyer appearing on a law and motion matter. The judge I appeared in front of was me, rudely asking pointed questions. I awoke in a cold sweat. What could be more horrific than me appearing before me? I shuddered and realized neither of us deserved a standing ovation. I suppose this all proves that power, absolute or limited, has little to do with respect. Respect, like anything else worthwhile, must be earned. Doing our work as best we can without thinking about respect is probably the best way to get it. If you think otherwise, you’re just dreaming.