Judges learn it’s human to have feelings on bench

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WASHINGTON – A Florida judge’s harsh reaction to a disrespectful teenage defendant, captured on court video, was a reminder that judges don’t shed their emotions when they don their black robes.


The recent episode quickly went viral. But for a few dozen new federal judges, it became a lesson in finding ways to acknowledge they experience a range of feelings on the bench and to channel them appropriately.


“We tell judges, ‘If you ever detect an emotion, squelch it.’ That’s an extremely bad idea,” said Vanderbilt University law professor Terry Maroney, who led a session for roughly 40 judges in Washington that incorporated the Florida incident. “You’re going to have emotions as a judge, no matter how many people tell you you won’t or aren’t supposed to.”


In a Miami-Dade County courtroom, Circuit Judge Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat doubled an 18-year-old’s bond when she laughed, then gave her 30 days in jail when she made an obscene gesture with her middle finger.


Several days later, she admitted she had been high on Xanax and alcohol and apologized to the judge. He erased the bond and let her go home.


U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel, who runs the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, said a judge’s first year can be especially intense, and Maroney’s aim is to help judges cope with the new stresses of the job, including the difficult task of sending another human being to prison.


“We don’t do a lot to prepare them for that. Judges, when they’re new, try particularly hard to live up to the expectations of the job. As you have more time and more experience, you realize you are not going to get it right every time. You have an obligation to try, but you can’t, because we’re all imperfect. It takes a while to come to terms with that,” said Fogel, a veteran of 30 years as a judge in state and federal courts in California.


The discussion in Washington was held behind closed doors, but Fogel and two new judges agreed to talk about it and about their experiences on the bench.


U.S. District Judge John Gerard in Lincoln, Neb., served as a state Supreme Court justice for 16 years, hearing appeals generally argued in measured tones and in a sterile environment, at least compared to a courtroom trial. President Barack Obama nominated him to the federal judiciary in 2011, and he began his new job a year ago.


Among the most difficult situations Gerard has encountered involved white-collar fraud.


“Those are emotionally charged. You’re trying to figure out what sentences to impose. You have the defendant’s family members on one side. They sometimes have no idea of the details. On the other side are victims who have been defrauded or whose life savings are gone. Those are fraught situations,” Gerard said. “I’m obviously going to base what I do on the law, but it’s helpful to know it’s OK when you do feel some anger, some revulsion.”


U.S. District Judge John Fowlkes in Memphis, Tenn., had five years of trial experience as a state court judge before becoming a federal judge in August. Yet he still appreciated the chance to share his perspective with other recent Obama nominees.


Frustration, Fowlkes said, is what keeps popping up. Roughly 85 percent of the criminal defendants who come before him are young black males, and the details vary little, he said.


By and large, they lack education and skills, having dropped out of school at an early age. Often, they are part of a drug or gang culture, and they pass through the courtroom seemingly headed for life as a career criminal, he said.


“There is a wider societal problem that is continuously brought to me for some type of solution, and courts are not the place for it,” Fowlkes said.


The first time Maroney did this sort of training session, last October in front more than 200 judges, she was surprised by how eager judges were to talk about emotions on the bench and share experiences from their somewhat isolated professional lives. “I worried that people would find it touchy-feely or some kind of therapy session, which it’s not at all. I think it’s important to give judges some breathing room,” she said.


What she is trying to do is to adapt research on human emotion for use in the courtroom.


“The cultural message is that judges are supposed to be poker-faced. Well, not always,” she said.


The Miami incident is useful to Maroney’s work because it illustrates a debate over when “judicial anger can serve an important teaching function — showing that defendant the gravity of her situation, demanding appropriate respect for authority — and when it might instead reflect intemperance and, stated bluntly, a power trip,” she said.


Another example Maroney is working into her presentation is the January sentencing of a serial killer by Justice Bonnie Wittner in New York State Supreme Court, the state’s trial court.


“She cried while she was sentencing him. It was unusual enough that it got reported, but it got reported in a very non-judgmental way. It was extremely meaningful to the victims’ families. It meant she cared. This is not a judge who is walled off and has lost all touch with humanity.”


For Fowlkes, the moment that really got to him occurred during a murder trial in state court, before a jury rendered its verdict. The victim was a 4-year-old girl who was beaten to death. Her mother’s boyfriend was on trial.


Prosecutors showed jurors the girl’s picture. Her body was lying on a table in the medical examiner’s office, just before the autopsy.


“It was as if she was just lying there asleep. You couldn’t see any bruises. I don’t know why that photo affected me the way it did,” Fowlkes said.


He couldn’t let his emotions show. “It’s something I had to deal with inside,” he said. “You just have to find a way of handling it so it does not adversely affect others.”


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