An Intemperate Judge

Matt Brown at Chandler Criminal Defense  writes about the wasted anger of a judge reading the riot act to a defendant who, when his crime and history are considered in a rational light, doesn’t deserve such vitriol. 

“I’m very sorry, and I will not let it happen again,” the defendant said. The judge attacked before he could even finish, asking him why things were going be different this time. She threw his priors at him when he tried to explain. She rubbed in the fact he was on probation when it happened. She expressed her disbelief by rolling her eyes, and she made sarcastic remarks. His pleas fell on deaf ears. She beat him up, on the record and in a standing-room-only courtroom. He was mortified.

As Matt goes on to explain, this particular defendant was hardly the sort that deserved to have his head ripped off.  Of course, that’s irrelevant, as the judge is omnipotent in the courtroom.  If the judge decides to denigrate a defendant at sentence, even when it’s baseless, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop her.  Appeal later, perhaps, but for that brief moment in time, she owns the room.

While it’s relatively common for a judge to show what Matt calls “tough love” at sentence, some are totally out of control, lambasting, ridiculing, denigrating the defendant, who stands there with no choice but to endure the judge’s vitriol.  One judge in Manhattan, Leslie Crocker Snyder, was so harsh in her rhetoric that she was the subject of a number of death threats, and had round the clock police protection (at enormous cost to the taxpayer), all so she could vent her spleen at defendants.  She was drunk with the power, and she held her vitriol out as a badge of honor as she tried to run for subsequent office.

One of the virtues expected of a judge is a judicial temperament.  The ability to restrain oneself despite possessing awesome power, to speak calmly, rationally, politely to all before the court.  This includes the defendant.  This includes sentence.  This virtue is put on display during elections and appearances before boards to approve merit on the bench, even when it can’t be found in a courtroom.

Matt pointed out the judge’s anger was wasted on this defendant.

The judge wasted her anger. The guy’s a repeat offender, but look at the offenses. Didn’t she think for one second that it was ridiculous making an example out of a guy who took a cactus and tried to enter his own shed? He’s already at least a two-time felon. Although it’s for dumb reasons, employers probably don’t care. He’s going away for a relatively long time. Her scolding had no real effect.

Wasted or not, the judge had no authority to play moral arbiter, avenging angel, mother.  The judge had no authority to ream the guy out.  The judge’s job is to impose a sentence that satisfies the legal criteria.  No more.  No less. They are not endowed with righteousness when they put on a robe, and they are not entitled to treat defendants to an uncontrollable dose of their “wisdom”. 

Power corrupts.  Judges wield essentially absolute power within the limited confines of their room.  And to the extent that this power is at its strongest, the time between the defendant’s opportunity to speak to the court and the imposition of sentence is the most vulnerable.  The sentence has yet to be pronounced, and it would be insane to make an effort to stand up to the person who is about to utter the number of years your client is about to spend in prison.

Judges think of this as an act of courage on their part.  It’s ridiculous.   It takes no courage for a judge to ridicule and demean a defendant who can do nothing to stop her.  It’s an abuse of power, nothing more.  

A  judge who gets off on abusing a defendant at sentence isn’t showing tough love, but that they have no business wielding the power they possess.  Whether or not the defendant’s crime is unforgivable, so too is the judge’s abuse of power.