Aurora Donnelly is a solo practitioner always looking forward to the next exciting transition.
This week I attended an event hosted by a bar association. It was lighthearted, nothing too serious, but the attendees were primarily lawyers and law students. It turned out that there were a few judges in attendance as well. While I waited for the event to begin, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. After we talked pleasantly for a while about our children and how they are finding their way in the world, I learned that my neighbor was a judge.
I don’t know what reaction you have when you meet a judge in a social setting. Some attorneys I have worked or socialized with are very accustomed to dealing with judges as “lay” people, that is, outside of the court setting. They frequently attend social events, or work on committees, or even play golf with judges.
Having been an attorney for only a few years, I generally only interact with judges as they sit on the bench and rule on cases I bring before them in the course of my work as a trial lawyer. While I have immense respect for sitting judges in the courtroom, I am not overawed in that situation— I consider the sitting judge on any one of my cases as one part of the process, albeit a very important part. We each perform our roles. Litigation is an adversarial procedure and the judge, in my view, is part and parcel of that procedure. I am the advocate whose job it is to convince the judge to rule in favor of my client.
So I present my case, and argue to convince, persuade, and if necessary, respectfully confront a judge that I believe is not arriving at the conclusion that I see as reasonable in light of the law and the facts presented. We all do that in the courtroom or we would not be proper advocates for our clients.
But strangely enough, when I meet a judge outside of the courtroom and our roles at that moment are not strictly defined by the legal process, I find myself unsure and tongue-tied. I have given some thought to this and have a come up with this conclusion.
In court, we each have our prescribed roles, the judge’s, of course, being the most powerful one and the most important to the integrity of the system. Outside of court, I am reminded that our judges are regular people, with the same joys and problems as the rest of us, in other words, just as fragile and subject to the ups and downs of life as we all are. I think that is what I find unsettling.
The freedom and well being we enjoy as a society is a result of a working system of law, of which judges are a fundamental component. Without learned and fair judges that system falls apart. If you have lived in, or studied countries where the system of law is weak or failing, you understand why good judges are so important. If you haven’t, take my word for it.
Our judges make or break our system of law and for that reason, carry an awesome burden for all of us, that of upholding the system to the best of their ability and making sure it works. This they do admirably, in spite of also having to deal with their own personal issues on a daily basis.
So to me, judges and their work are so crucial to a free society that I feel more comfortable interacting with them in their authoritative role in the courtroom rather than in person, as fragile human beings. But, on the other hand, maybe it is the very humanity of a judge, in part, that makes him or her fit to dispense justice.