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.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
Across the world, ideas of the paranormal persist.
In June, Sheila Sillery-Walsh, a British tourist visiting the historic island-prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco, claimed that she captured an image of a ghost in a picture she snapped on her iPhone. In the frame of what was otherwise supposed to be a picture of an empty prison cell was a blurry black and white image of a woman. The story, which was printed in the British tabloid theDaily Mail, featured on the Bay Area's local KRON4 TV station and mocked by SFist, isn't the first time the Daily Mail has claimed that strange images have come up on smart devices.
Normally, a paranormal story wouldn’t catch my attention, but a few months before the story came out, a Spanish friend of mine named Laura showed me a weird image she found on her phone while I was traveling in Madrid. The photo, taken on her iPhone while on a trip to Ethiopia, shows a boy looking down at leaves he is holding in his hands. Seemingly superimposed onto the boy is another image of the boy, hands in a different position and eyes looking straight at the camera.
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
Grasses—green, neatly trimmed, symbols of civic virtue—shaped the national landscape. They have now outlived their purpose.
The hashtag #droughtshaming—which primarily exists, as its name suggests, to publicly decry people who have failed to do their part to conserve water during California’s latest drought—has claimed many victims. Anonymous lawn-waterers. Anonymous sidewalk-washers. The city of Beverly Hills. The tag’s most high-profile shamee thus far, however, has been the actor Tom Selleck. Who was sued earlier this summer by Ventura County’s Calleguas Municipal Water District for the alleged theft of hydrant water, supposedly used to nourish his 60-acre ranch. Which includes, this being California, an avocado farm, and also an expansive lawn.
The case was settled out of court on terms that remain undisclosed, and everyone has since moved on with their lives. What’s remarkable about the whole thing, though—well, besides the fact that Magnum P.I. has apparently become, in his semi-retirement, a gentleman farmer—is how much of a shift all the Selleck-shaming represents, as a civic impulse. For much of American history, the healthy lawn—green, lush, neatly shorn—has been a symbol not just of prosperity, individual and communal, but of something deeper: shared ideals, collective responsibility, the assorted conveniences of conformity. Lawns, originally designed to connect homes even as they enforced the distance between them, are shared domestic spaces. They are also socially regulated spaces. “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country,” Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the nation’s first landscaper-philosophers, put it, “we know that order and culture are established.”
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
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.