City Judge, Country Judge

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By Glenna Hall


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.

In 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.

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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.


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For 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.


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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.

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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. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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