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Indiana Judges Association: What you need to know about state judges

David J. Dreyer
January 29, 2014
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IJA-Dreyer-DavidCherry Hill is an authority in the field of horsekeeping and horse training. Having not ridden a horse since the pony rides of pre-adolescence, I am nevertheless struck by Hill’s keen insights into the art of judging. In 2005, she published an online article called “The Profession of Judging” in which she discusses what makes a good judge – for horse shows. For example:

1. Must be a keen observer and make sound decisions

2. Able to work long hours

3. Must be punctual, have a good sense of time and be organized

4. Must thoroughly know the rule book

5. A judge should be stable, not moody. It is probably best for a judge to be somewhat reserved yet pleasant. Excess formality or “good-old-boy” casualness can be misinterpreted and counterproductive.

6. The judge dictates the mood, so personal feelings must be put aside.

7. All selections and decisions must be based on fair play. Problems will be minimal, questions can be answered straight-forward, and there will be no restless conscience.

8. A good judge is alert, knowledgeable, confident and ethical.

While there may (or may not) be a big difference between horses and humans, there may not be any difference between horse judging and human judging. After all, judging is a fundamental objective endeavor. It is always instructive to compare “judging” with “judgmental,” that is, a conclusory perspective borne from bias, stereotype or narrow subjective information. Columnist Cal Thomas once wrote that “judgment” is “holding people accountable to a standard we did not create,” and “judgmentalism” is “thinking ourselves morally superior because we haven’t committed the acts of others.” So for more than 17 years, I have been a judge, not a judgmentalist. And the same goes for practically every judge I know.

My non-lawyer friends spend almost all their time at social events with me asking about judging and judgmentalism. This is what I want them to know:

Judges work hard.

Last year, we state judges alone worked on more than 100 million cases, according to the National Center on State Courts. In Indiana, our Division of State Court Administration reports about 1.2 million cases last year. Our mortgage foreclosures are up 11.9 percent and Indiana murders up by 21.6 percent. No judge gets extra pay for working extra time. The judges do what the job demands, year in and year out.

Judges rule against people they like, and in favor of people they don’t like.

As our horse-judging list shows above, personal feelings must be put aside, or else the judge is not judging. As a normal person, I see people every day that are on my good list or my bad list. The essential quality of judging is to see one’s judgmentalism present all the time, and be perfectly fine with setting it aside. Lawyers do it with clients, businesses do it with customers, and neighbors do it with neighbors. I certainly like some lawyers much better than others – but I can honestly attest that it doesn’t make a bit of difference. It is this level of professionalism that is the currency of a judge’s daily practice.

Judges don’t have publicists.

Can you remember the last time you saw a judge on the cover of a news magazine (when we still had news magazines)? Have you ever seen a judge interviewed after a big trial? In fact, can anyone remember ever reading a quote from a judge not taken from a written legal opinion or from the bench? There are exceptions, fortunately, but judges, more than other branches of government, have to let their actions speak for themselves. They don’t take polls, have town meetings or hold press conferences. That is not the nature of judging. Our legal system is too important to risk losing public confidence by doing anything other than calling balls and strikes – and taking the boos and catcalls if they come.

Judges are connected to people and their problems.

What other job involves making everyday decisions about people with real problems like an estate, theft, mortgage, unpaid bills, business transactions, medical malpractice, bankruptcy, divorce, environmental cleanup, drunken driving, employment, child custody, insurance coverage, juvenile delinquency, or just plain old-fashioned murder? It may be safe to say that no elected officials solve more daily problems for people face-to-face than state trial judges. Beyond that, the community sees judges regularly involved in activities outside the courtroom. According to Indiana Judicial Center data, about 90 percent of all Indiana judges are involved in extra-judicial activities in bar associations, not-for-profit charities or judicial committees. You just can’t say we don’t care.

Judges are stewards of the law.

All of us are stewards of the legal profession. But only judges are stewards of the law. Inevitably, those of us who take the oath become a different sort of advocate. Our ability, ethics and fidelity are directed toward applying, interpreting and distinguishing. The human balance that unquestionably enters every human endeavor does not spare judges. But every judge knows he or she must seek to develop a keen instinct to recognize if, how, or when to let that balance enter any particular decision. This judicial discretion is the heart of the law and only a judge practices it.

Even the Pope now says “Who I am to judge?” when faced with the prospect of being a judgmentalist. So the next time you find yourself doing some horse-trading in the courthouse, chances are you can have a good judge who will help – even with a horse show.•

__________

Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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