Real courtrooms look nothing like TV. Not much seems to go on, and the pace can be glacially slow. But what's happening is profoundly serious. Judges can send people to death or long periods in prison, they can permanently deprive them of their children, and they can ruin them financially. I've done most of those things.
However scary and responsible, the work is also highly satisfying and can even be fun. It is, in my opinion, the best job in the law. I've made rulings that decided a horse race, and I've stopped a ferry. (After the jump is a photo of the author in full spate, stopping a ferry.) With my courtroom filled with 12-year-olds in baseball uniforms, I've determined whether a Pony League team could go on to the next step of tournament play. In joyous moments, I've performed marriages and adoptions.
In 2008 I retired from working full time, but I've been lucky enough to keep being a judge on an occasional basis in San Juan County, a much different place from the big up-and-coming Seattle-King County metro area.
the big city, I was one of more than fifty judges, all of whom were, as
we liked to point out, "independently elected public officials." By
that we meant that we were all peers, that we each had gotten to the
court independently of one another, and that we collectively ran the
judicial branch of the government in our county. Nobody was the boss of
us. We mostly thought of ourselves as generalists, whether or not we had
been specialists in our previous work as lawyers. My colleagues were
very smart and intellectually sophisticated, and among themselves could
be highly contentious.
Where I worked also doesn't look like Law and Order.
The primary courthouse for King County is in Seattle. It is old and
attractive, but also remarkably grubby and uncomfortable.
most of the time I was there, judges' chambers had no hot water.
Cleaning was sporadic and ineffectual. Almost none of the courtrooms and
other public areas were disability accessible; it was nearly impossible
for wheelchair-bound citizens to serve on juries. The constant roar of
heating and air conditioning in the courtrooms made listening an
exhausting chore. After the strong but mercifully deep earthquake of
2001, the county passed up the chance to replace this outmoded building,
so large parts of it were closed for almost two years for earthquake
retrofitting. Ancient, thick, and soundproof (but extremely dangerous)
walls were removed. The remodel made the building even less comfortable,
and it took away some of its charm.
When I was there, a typical day for a judge in King County started by 8:30 in the morning. when we heard short matters, such as an easy motion or a probation violation hearing. We then moved into trial time at around 9:00 a.m., hearing cases till 4:00 p.m., and finally did more motions and short matters until 4:30 or even later. After that we might have a meeting or a settlement conference that ran into the dinner hour. There were significantly more cases than judges, and it was important to keep moving -- sometimes it felt more like processing than judging.
Before and after the trial day and during lunch our time could be completely filled by meetings, since as judges, we governed the judicial branch. Theoretically, every judge was hearing something in the courtroom from 8:30 to 4:30, so preparation and deliberation time were off the clock. Each of us was responsible for hundreds of cases. The competition to be the most workaholic was keen, and judges frequently went out the door at the end of the day with huge armloads of files.
As superior court judges, we heard cases ranging from drug possession to murder and from simple slip-and-falls to huge contract or personal injury cases. Among the most difficult were matters involving children: hotly contested custody, abuse and neglect, or juvenile crimes. I did nothing but custody-type cases for three years.
To support all this work were scores of staff people, ranging from filers to clerks to social workers, and a lot of stuff, including furniture, computers, and many tons of paper.
The work was hard when I was there, and recent brutal budget cuts have made it even harder. Support staff have been cut repeatedly, and when I see my former colleagues they look exhausted.
Being a judge in a very small island community is both different and similar.
The first time I sat in Friday Harbor as a judge pro tem was almost half a year after I had left Seattle. Unlike the chambers I had inhabited in the city, the window behind me looked out on the harbor and the marina, with the big shoulder of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island in the background beyond the water. I could see ferries come and go. The building and the room were clean.
I had brought away with me from Seattle the more worn of my two judicial robes, folded up since my last day of work. As I put it on, I found my hands automatically going through the remembered patterns of hooking the top fastener, then going down through the snaps. I smiled to myself about the familiarity, and went out into the courtroom.
Since that day I have learned the charms and awkwardnesses of being a judge in a very small place. As a judge pro tem in this community, I am a utility player. Except when our excellent regular judges (one Superior Court judge, one District Court judge) are away, I am not in the starting lineup, but I have learned to play field positions I never before filled. In the city, the Superior Court judges shunned the idea of doing traffic cases; in San Juan County I have learned to give them the same care and respect I would to a major felony.
Court resources were never abundant in San Juan County, even when times were better. For example, although there were staff social workers in King County who could investigate and report on kids' circumstances, here there is almost no county money for such services. Expensive technology has never been a priority, and many staff members do double duty in court jobs. The fact that this is a one-judge superior court can be a further drain on resources: if the judge is prevented by conflict rules from hearing a case, an expensive exchange with another county is sometimes needed.
One of the great dreads for rural judges is having to hear a high-profile case, especially a long one, for they are very, very expensive. It might have been interesting to try the Barefoot Bandit here, but it would have broken the budget.
Where a rural court can shine is in its humanity. The court in San Juan County is distinguished for me by the emphasis it places on taking care of its own. All the players involved have a common goal, namely, dispensing real justice: justice for the community and for the individuals involved in every case. The courtroom prosecutor, for instance, does not subordinate integrity -- either his own or that of the system -- to chalking up convictions. Some of that stems from knowing the people involved in a prosecution: the defendant, his or her family, the victims and their families, and the neighbors and friends who can shore up a sinking family. When a young person gets in trouble and the family can't or won't help, someone else is likely to step up to the plate, because the community cares deeply about its kids. Indeed, when I sit as a juvenile court judge in Friday Harbor, I am struck by the fact that these kids can still be turned around.
Small communities, though, can also reject their own. In January, I dealt with a young man who had committed a particularly ugly crime ten years ago and had recently violated his probation. It was apparent, when I invited him to address the court, that he had a profound distaste for his life and the way he lived now. He had never been able to get his life into shape, the way most of us did after our teens and early twenties. He had moved to the other side of the state, and he feared that if he went to jail, he would lose his rented house there. As he put it, if that happened he would have little choice but to come back home -- a place where, he said, nobody wanted him. The community had, indeed, never forgotten what he had done. His very presence seemed to raise the hackles of the people I work with. The atmosphere in the courtroom was like nothing I had encountered in the city.
Anonymity for a judge or anyone else involved in the court system is nearly impossible in a small community. A potential juror might have been bowling the previous week with the plaintiff who is claiming permanent injury. The guy who runs the deli in the market knows I work as a judge, as do most of the proprietors of the places I eat lunch. For a while one of the baggers in the market would huff at me about the extra 24 hours in jail I had given him. Even on the mainland I run into people who had appeared before me in Friday Harbor.
The rewards of working here are immense. I've had the opportunity to become a better judge than ever before. Part of it is having time to do the work properly -- when I preside over a settlement conference, I can take the time necessary to help the parties resolve their disputes, and when I hear a case, I know I can consider the facts and the law without a Chief Judge breathing down my neck to get on with it and take the next case. Mostly, though, it's knowing that I am part of a team with genuine concern for the community and the individuals who live in it.
Ultimately, judges in big and small communities serve an institution and a concept of justice we believe are central to our American ideals. I am proud to have been a part of the judiciary and I'm proud to be able to serve it still.
Glenna Hall, a retired superior court judge and mediator,
lives on San Juan Island, Washington.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
The mock metropolis is meant to have everything but people who live there.
Grigory Potemkin, the 18th-century war hero and nobleman, was also Catherine the Great’s lover and military advisor. According to ubiquitous legend, Potemkin fabricated villages along the banks of the Dnieper River in a bid to impress her. Historians aren’t convinced that Potemkin really constructed entire fake villages, their facades illuminated by enormous bonfires—but the concept may not be so far-fetched.
These days, when people talk about a Potemkin village, they’re usually referring to a ruse to make something appear better than it actually is. It’s a useful metaphor, but also a reflection of people’s fascination with fake cities and questions about the line between authenticity and artificiality in man-made environments.
Why agriculture may someday take place in towers, not fields
A couple of Octobers ago, I found myself standing on a 5,000-acre cotton crop in the outskirts of Lubbock, Texas, shoulder-to-shoulder with a third-generation cotton farmer. He swept his arm across the flat, brown horizon of his field, which was at that moment being plowed by an industrial-sized picker—a toothy machine as tall as a house and operated by one man. The picker’s yields were being dropped into a giant pod to be delivered late that night to the local gin. And far beneath our feet, the Ogallala aquifer dwindled away at its frighteningly swift pace. When asked about this, the farmer spoke of reverse osmosis—the process of desalinating water—which he seemed to put his faith in, and which kept him unafraid of famine and permanent drought.
19 Kids and Counting built its reputation on preaching family values, but the mass-media platforms that made the family famous might also be their undoing.
On Thursday, news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the Duggar family's 19 children, had, as a teenager, allegedly molested five underage girls. Four of them, allegedly, were his sisters.
The information came to light because, in 2006—two years before 17 Kids and Counting first aired on TLC, and thus two years before the Duggars became reality-TV celebrities—the family recorded an appearance on TheOprah Winfrey Show. Before the taping, an anonymous source sent an email to Harpo warning the production company Josh’s alleged molestation. Harpo forwarded the email to authorities, triggering a police investigation (the Oprah appearance never aired). The news was reported this week by In Touch Weekly—after the magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the police report on the case—and then confirmed by the Duggars in a statement posted on Facebook.
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
A majority of Senators wanted to stop a spy program that they never approved. They failed despite having more votes. And it only gets more bizarre from there.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the U.S. Senate played host to a moment that took mass surveillance on the phone records of Americans from outrage to farce.
The NSA’s phone dragnet had already been declared illegal.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that while the surveillance agency has long claimed to be acting in accordance with Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the text of that law in fact authorizes no such program. The Obama Administration has been executing a policy that the legislature never passed into being.
But the law that doesn’t even authorize the program is set to expire at the end of the month. And so the court reasoned that Congress could let it expire or vote to change it. For this reason, the court declined to issue an order shutting the program down.
Why it’s so hard to defeat an enemy that won’t fight you, and what this means for U.S. strategy on everything from the Islamic State to China
The Scythians were nomadic horsemen who dominated a vast realm of the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and southern Russia, from the seventh century to the third century b.c. Unlike other ancient peoples who left not a trace, the Scythians continued to haunt and terrify long after they were gone. Herodotus recorded that they “ravaged the whole of Asia. They not only took tribute from each people, but also made raids and pillaged everything these peoples had.” Napoleon, on witnessing the Russians’ willingness to burn down their own capital rather than hand it over to his army, reputedly said: “They are Scythians!”
The more chilling moral for modern audiences involves not the Scythians’ cruelty, but rather their tactics against the invading Persian army of Darius, early in the sixth century b.c. As Darius’s infantry marched east near the Sea of Azov, hoping to meet the Scythian war bands in a decisive battle, the Scythians kept withdrawing into the immense reaches of their territory. Darius was perplexed, and sent the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, a challenge: If you think yourself stronger, stand and fight; if not, submit.