Some thoughts on judicial temperament

Former Chief Justice Ann McMorrow and Judge James P. O’Malley

Over on Jack Leyhane’s blog, “For What it’s Worth,” he has an excellent post about “judicial temperament.”  He talks about what it is and how important it is in considering a judge’s qualities.  You can read it by clicking this link.

Here are a couple of quotes:

…a temperate judge treats all persons in front of the bench with respect and courtesy and that a temperate judge expects and usually receives courtesy and civil behavior from those who appear in his or her court.

Nobody likes being bullied. And, sadly, a judge with a poor temperament is often a bully, pushing people around simply because he or she can, embarrassing lawyers in front of their clients, and in general not treating the people who appear in court with the respect and civility which one might expect.

On the other hand, I’ve appeared in front of judges who had awful temperament… and were good judges… and I’ve appeared in front of judges who were the distilled essence of excellent judicial temperament… and were terrible judges.

….if a judge doesn’t follow the law and rules unpredictably, especially when I believe (in the best exercise of my professional judgment) that I have a strong case, I don’t care how nice the judge may be, or how good his or her temperament is: Legal knowledge, ability, skills and respect for the law and precedent trumps temperament, in my opinion, every time.

Given my druthers, of course, I’d take both.

As a fellow trial lawyer (and I have tried cases in just about every division and courthouse in Cook County, plus the surrounding collar counties), I think Mr. Leyhane is exactly right.

In the DUI context, I can think of many judges who are wonderful people, very courteous and pleasant.  But on the bench they are either very confused about the law, have difficult times making decisions, or worst of all, find virtually everyone guilty regardless of the facts of the case.  A former boss of mine once warned me to always beware of the judges who “smile before they stick the knife in your back.”

On the other hand, I have known many judges who are very difficult in the courtroom, yet are very knowledgeable about the law and will give a fair trial.  Oftentimes, this is because the judge is so knowledgeable that he or she has lost his or her patience for attorneys who lack the practice skills or diligence that they expect.

For example, there is one judge in one of the suburban Cook County courthouses whose demeanor seems to have terrified many attorneys.  Many a time I have found myself sitting in a Cook County courthouse during a recess, overhearing some attorneys talking shop, when inevitably the conversation turns to this judge and the latest thing he has done. Yet, I am always glad to be in front of him, because he will give my client a fair trial.  I have won cases and lost cases with this judge, but, at the end of the day, I can rest easy knowing that I was before a fair tribunal.

Having said that, I agree with Mr. Leyhane’s final sentiment, that it is better have both judicial knowledge and temperament.  Often I will sit in court while a perpetually grumpy judge is presiding, and I wonder, “how hard would it be to be just a little pleasant?” or “doesn’t this judge appreciate his or her job?  If not, he or she can resign, and there will be 200 people applying for the vacancy.”

One of my favorite judges to appear before was the late Judge James P. O’Malley, who served at the Bridgeview courthouse for many years before he died (at the way too early age of 54).  He was tough but fair; knowledgeable about the law, and I always felt that I received a fair hearing.  But what I will always remember is the way that he dealt with people — attorneys, defendants, witnesses, police officers, sheriffs, clerks, everyone.  When a nervous new attorney would step up before him, he would often say “Don’t worry counsel, you are amongst friends.”  If only every judge could be like Judge O’Malley, my life would be a lot easier.

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