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.

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.

Settling into the bench

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.)

Worse, former colleagues are suddenly obsequious. "As soon as the word is out that you are awaiting a nomination, you can immediately notice the difference [in how people treat you]," says Judge Jeremy Stahlin, of Suffolk Probate and Family Court in Boston.

Outgoing or extroverted judges - 57 percent of the women Judge Kennedy surveyed - might find it particularly difficult to maintain a polite distance from former co-workers.

But introverts - approximately 60 percent of the men - may need to be careful of the other extreme. "You can get insulated and the world is nothing but your robe, your courtroom, and your support staff," says Dean Borunda.

Judges have different ways of staying connected. Judge Stahlin, for one, reads about cultural differences in family and child dynamics. Some are single parents who keep busy with their children. Still others are triathletes.

Regardless of temperament, all judges must deal with the fact that "there are very few people that are going to tell you that you're wrong," says Martha Grace, chief justice of the Massachusetts Juvenile Court. For that reason, Justice Grace personally tells her judges of any rumors circulating about them - good or bad. For example, recently, a female judge was criticized for wearing too much jewelry.

Perceptions matter

Most judges may not have a public relations strategy in court. But perceptions do matter - not only to a judge's reputation, but to the public's sense of justice. "For the litigant, the process is twice as important as the outcome.... If you lose but you had a fair trial, you can walk away happy," says Roger Warren, president of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

Of course, it's one thing to please a plaintiff in a drunk-driving case, and something else to keep both parties in a custody battle happy. That doesn't mean Judge Stahlin doesn't try.

Stahlin learned his first lesson in courtroom manners as a recent college graduate contesting a speeding ticket. Stahlin hired a lawyer and diligently prepared notes for his case, only to be struck with naive horror by the sight of his counsel bantering with the police prosecutor.

Stahlin says he uses that incident to remind himself that certain behavior in the courtroom can be confusing and alienating to the uninitiated. When he first started out on the bench, he made a conscious effort to resist two things he thought could be misinterpreted: cultivating positive first impressions of anyone on either side, or holding a client responsible for an impertinent attorney.

Stahlin also says he's learned to use humor sparingly, although he's naturally inclined to make a flip comment here and add some levity there.

That's not to say judges feel they should completely suppress their personalities. But Kennedy believes the tests and courses that focus on personality awareness can help judges understand why, for example, they might prefer reaching decisions in privacy.

Ultimately, Kennedy believes, that only "helps judges understand their personal filter....[because] nobody processes every single thing that happens before [their] eyes."

Supreme Court justices' other lives

Joseph Story (1812-1845) A published poet, he was known in his hometown as the "Poet of Marblehead." Ironically, his court opinions were better known for being "tedious."

William Brennan Jr. (1956-1990) Early in his career, he quit a burgeoning private practice and accepted a position in the New Jersey Superior Court so he could spend more time with his family.

Byron White (1962-1993) He played pro football for the old Pittsburgh Pirates and the Detroit Lions.

Warren Burger (1969-1986)He served as chairman of the National Gallery of Art while he was a justice. He was also recognized as a skilled sculptor.

Sandra Day O'Connor (1981-) After being sworn, she told President Reagan: "As far as I'm concerned, the best place to be in the world is on a good cutting horse, working cattle."

Source: Congressional Quarterly; Women in World History, A Biographical Encyclopedia

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.