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Good judges

My buddy Paul has a simple definition of a good judge:  one who won't "jam him up."  That's an understandable concern.  Paul and I are both solo practitioners, and that can be rough.  If there's something that needs to be done, we need to do it.  It's not like we can pawn off a pretrial to an associate, or have a paralegal draft a complaint, or tell the law clerk to research the law for that brief that's due on Friday.  So it's good to have a judge who's not going to get on our case about discovery deadlines or who'll give us that continuance if things get really stacked up.

That comes in handy.  I've had judges let me withdraw from an appointed case on the day of trial because my client wanted to retain a lawyer.  I've also had judges refuse to let me do that.  Believe me, spending three days in trial on a crack pipe case listening to your client tell you that you're part of the grand conspiracy to get him convicted is probably somewhere on page one on the list of life experiences that should be avoided.  That's when you really appreciate more leniency from the bench.

And some judges go to a point well beyond just an unwillingness to let you bail out of a case at the last minute.  In the 30-some years I've been practicing, the most feared person over at the Justice Center was a bailiff named Mary.  She appeared to have adopted Blackbeard's motto in her manner of running her judge's courtroom:  "Goddamn me to hell if I ask for quarter, or give any."  Client wasn't there by 9:00 for a pretrial?  Capias.  In fact, if you weren't there for a 9:00 pretrial, there'd be problems.  I vividly remember one day sitting right outside her door while she called a lawyer's office and asked to speak to him.  Upon being told that he wasn't there, she replied sweetly, "Well, he was due here at 9:00 AM, and it's now ten minutes to ten, so please tell him when he gets here he'll be put in jail."  It was clear that she took real pleasure in telling you when you appeared for a pretrial two days after being assigned to a case that she was scheduling the trial a week from now.  (It's possible that a good bit of this was simply for show.  She left when she got a job running the Akron clerk's office, and a lawyer who ran into her there told me she couldn't have been nicer.)

But you know what?  When you had a trial in that judge's room scheduled for 8:30, it started at 8:30.  In fact, if you walked in at 8:33, the judge would be sitting on the bench, and the jury would be in the box, all staring at you.  You didn't do that twice.

And there's a real value to that.  A couple years back, in the span of a a few months I had a civil trial in Cuyahoga County and one in Lake County.  In both, there were about three or four major witnesses, and a handful of minor ones.  The Cuyahoga County trial took a week; the Lake County trial took a day and a half.  The difference was that the Cuyahoga County judge -- no longer on the bench -- was a great person, but she didn't show up until about 10 and then she'd take the bench about 11, and the the "five minute breaks" would turn out to be fifteen or twenty so she could take a couple pleas or do a sentencing, and the lunch recess was supposed to be an hour but wound up closer to two...  The Lake County judge started at 8:30 and ran until 4:30, with an hour for lunch, and a five minute meant a five minute break.

The judges who are most likely to "jam you up" are also the most likely not to waste your time:  if you have a trial date and time, you know the trial's going to go on that date and start at that time.  The judges who are most likely to give you an extension of a discovery deadline are also the most likely to sit on a summary judgment motion for months without a ruling.  I've got a case now where we haven't had a response to motions we filed back in October; I've spent a fair amount of time over the past two months explaining to my client why there's not too much we can do about that.  I've learned from experience the truth of the old saw about how trying to push a judge to make a ruling is like teaching a bear to dance:  it doesn't work, and the bear just gets pissed off.  So I wind up with a very unhappy client.  And that jams me up, too.


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