Striving for a judicious balance on the bench
The Honorable Leslie Harris is sitting in his office at Boston's Edward W. Brooke Courthouse - robeless and sporting two diamond studs in his left ear. He's not crying yet, but his big brown eyes are looking moist, and every word is a small struggle.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
What has him choked up is a letter from a 16-year-old inmate he sentenced last March. The teenager is thanking Judge Harris for letting him speak in court, even when the prosecutor painted him as a "killer."
"He's on my mind constantly," says Harris, of Suffolk County Juvenile Court in Massachusetts. "I still worry about him. I worry about who he'll be when he comes out [of prison]."
But Harris, who calls himself a "crybaby," has a different image on the bench, where he's earned a reputation for zero tolerance when it comes to school truancy.
He's not alone: Most behind the gavel are not known for their tender hearts. Rather, many judges - who spend the workweek in a fishbowl, their every utterance on permanent record - feel compelled to keep such personality traits hidden behind their robes.
But the face of the legal profession, and the judiciary, is changing. Women make up nearly 50 percent of American lawyers, and more and more members of racial minorities are in the legal profession as well. Along with ethnic diversity and gender balance, more diversity of temperament and personal style is becoming apparent on the bench. The traditional image of a judge - grandfatherly and urbane, stern and patriarchal - is not to be taken for granted.
Moreover, judicial education is usually limited to a few weeks' apprenticeship with another judge, and, in some jurisdictions, extra legal training each year. Only occasionally are judges offered courses to raise awareness of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and the ways they respond to evidence.
Instead, most judges must learn on the job. After a rash comment one day, an impatient judge learns to bite his tongue when a witness is testifying. In an awkward moment, a jester of the court finds out that her jokes can be offensive or inappropriate - now that she's a minister of the court.
Ultimately, conforming to the Model Code of Judicial Conduct - quite a complex document, compared with the Hippocratic oath - proves easier for some than others.
Most judges are former lawyers who come to the bench with a certain ease in the courtroom. Even so, the transition can be jarring. There's the stress of campaigning, in the case of elected judges; new legal areas to learn (a former civil rights lawyer could find herself presiding over a drug court), and the challenge of being thrust to the helm of an often large court staff.
But the advocate-turned-judge must also make an intellectual shift. Lawyers, who bill clients by the hour, are rated primarily in terms of efficiency. Due process, on the other hand, is the first priority for judges. This may mean slowing down and giving evidence and testimony time to steep, despite the temptation to keep dockets moving.
Some judges have been known to take that notion too far. Ernest Borunda, dean of the National Judicial College, tells the story of one such judge, who as a lawyer was unmatched in his ability to argue both sides of a case. Yet on the bench, this skill plagued him: He constantly put off decisions until he had up to 1,000 cases under submission.
Judges are more likely, however, to be hasty decionmakers than brooders. Judicial educator John Kennedy applied the Myers-Briggs type inventory, a widely used psychological test, to 1,300 judges over the course of a decade and found that more than 72 percent of them were classified as characteristically "judging" rather than "perceiving" personalities. His 1998 study, "Personality Type and Judicial Decision Making," published in The Judges' Journal, found that a great majority share characteristics such as punctuality, decisiveness ("sometimes to the point of close-mindedness"), and effective time management.
Perhaps the biggest shock for many judges is the social isolation intrinsic to their job. Membership in certain clubs and associations becomes inappropriate. (In California, that includes any role in the recently controversial Boy Scouts.)