Franklin County, Ohio, Judge Amy Salerno disagreed with the verdict of a jury. Oh boy. As she explained it to the Columbus Dispatch, “(I) failed to contain my surprise at this particular meeting (with jurors).” This may be a bit of an understatement.
“(The judge) said, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the time, the jury is correct,’ ” according to [juror LeShawn] Chapman. “ ‘Now it’s 98 percent. You got this wrong.’
“She berated us,” Chapman, 39, said of the judge. “It was just nasty.”
In theory, the judge is a neutral in a criminal trial, there to assure that the trial proceeds in accordance with the proper procedure and that all constitutional mandates are fulfilled. But to believe that judges have no opinion as to the merit of the prosecution is mind-numbingly naïve. Of course they do, as is usually pretty obvious from their attitude and rulings. The good judges keep their view under wraps, let the lawyers try their case and, well, keep their opinions to themselves.
But the Honorable Amelia A. Salerno just couldn’t manage to keep her opinions to herself. She’s hardly the first judge to indulge her deepest feelings.
Notably, prior to becoming a judge, she served a term in the Ohio legislature before running for election as a judge. That’s usually an indication that her political party wanted to get her out of the Ohio House, and lower court judgeships are commonly the dumping ground for failed politicians.
As a judge, she seems to present herself as something of a populist:
I try to run my courtroom in a relaxed atmosphere. Considering the number of cases that come through our courtroom on a daily basis, it is important that the parties, the attorneys, and all other persons involved with the court are willing to discuss the matters with a goal of efficient termination of the cases. It is important to remember that this is the “people’s court.” Because it is, we have to give the people the benefit of an efficient system.
While this may sound kinda folksy on the surface, whenever a judge openly suggests that she has “a goal of efficient termination,” one’s spidey sense should start to tingle. Not that it means termination with extreme prejudice, but that termination in itself is a very disturbing goal. After all, it’s easy enough to achieve “efficient (though it strikes me that she uses the wrong word here, a common mistake) termination” by doing all the bad things that deprive people of their right to fairly challenge the allegations against them. It may make the trains run on time, but rarely achieves due process.
But regardless of her conflicted judicial philosophy, her post-verdict rant reflects something far more nefarious than merely disagreeing with a verdict. She was intemperate. She charged the jury (presumably, since this is a part of every jury charge) that they were the sole triers of the facts, and they alone had complete authority to return a verdict of guilty or not guilty. No doubt she told them this with a straight face, even though she was reading from pattern jury instructions. Jurors rarely appreciate how rote much of a trial is, particularly the judge’s efforts to be charming and funny at the expense of the lawyers and litigants.
But when she turned unfunny (and as the above photo shows, Judge Salerno really knows how to put on an unfunny face when she wants to), she defied the basic precept of judicial involvement. She used the authority of her position to tell the “sole and exclusive triers of fact” that they blew it, they cut the bad guy loose. So if he later goes out and rapes and pillages, it will be their fault. Are you proud of yourselves now, jurors?
And yet, the scenario gets worse.
One of the jurors who spoke to [administrative] Judge Green was visibly upset while describing the actions of Salerno, who also stated that she was not done with the defendant that had been acquitted.
“They reported to me [that] she made a comment to them, it was okay because she would have another chance to get this defendant because he had other charges pending,” he said.
Following the outrage caused by Judge Salerno’s improper rant, she recused herself from the defendant’s subsequent prosecution. But the notion that she would have used her position of neutral authority to assure that what she perceived to be a wrongful acquittal was “corrected” the next time is a flagrant violation of her ethical and legal duty.
Yet, had she not been intemperate, had she been capable of controlling her self-indulgence, no one would have known what darkness existed in this judge and a subsequent conviction of the same defendant would have drawn yawns.
One of the most fragile and facile aspects of the legal system is the avoidance of the appearance of impropriety. The downside to the concept is that it doesn’t mean there is no impropriety, but only that there is no outward evidence of it. And so cases move forward to their “efficient termination” and everybody walks away, comfortable in the belief that everything is going just fine.
We need a Judge Amy Salerno from time to time to remind us that judges are people, sometimes deeply flawed people, and for all the fancy rhetoric about what a great legal system we have, it’s only as good as the worst judge on the bench.