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.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run severalstories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to twonew books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
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.
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
At a large distribution center located north of Boston, a robot lifts a shelf holding merchandise and navigates it through the warehouse to the workstation of an employee who then picks the item needed for an order and places it in a shipping box. Incoming orders are processed by a computer that sends picking requests to sixty-nine robots. Then, the robots deliver storage units to roughly a hundred workers, saving the workers the task of walking through the warehouse to find the items. In other distribution centers, this is work that warehouse workers do.
The distribution center, run by Quiet Logistics—a company that fills orders for sellers of premium-branded apparel, is featured in the60 Minutes episode “Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?” In the segment, Steve Kroft poses the following question to Bruce Welty, the CEO of Quiet Logistics: "If you had to replace the robots with people, how many people would you have to hire?" Welty estimates that he would have to hire one and a half people for every robot, and that the robots are saving him a lot of money.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.