Wanted: Robed Executioner

The words would be harsh in a Reddit comment:

The best way to think about it is to ask yourself this question: “Am I a willing judicial executioner, a person who consciously does great harm to other human beings by faithfully executing the extraordinarily harsh national criminal laws?”

The job to which these words apply is United States District Judge.  The author of these words is a United States District Judge.  Not just any judge, mind you, but Richard Kopf of the District of Nebraska, now on senior status having been appointed by President Bush in 1992.

At his blog, Hercules and the Umpire (yes, he has a blog), Judge Kopf writes of a conversation with Vince Powers, a personal injury lawyer and the head of the Nebraska Democratic Party.  Discussing an opening in the court,

Vince said something insightful. It went roughly like this: “I hope whoever it is realizes what pain they will inflict and what pain they will observe as they sentence people.” He added, “It must do something to you.” Vince was right, and in spades.

Not only is it insightful to consider how the power players think, but to know that they know.  We often surmise that they just don’t get it, failing to see what others see, what we see.  But they do, apparently. They see it clearly.

Of course, the federal judge gig is a big one, a lifetime appointment where people will treat you with respect and laugh at your jokes no matter what. It may not pay well. In fact, the pay sucks. But there is no shortage of people who covet the chance to wear a black robe in a room designed to impress upon everyone the dignity and seriousness of authority.  And the Ruler of the Courtroom chair does not lack for people who desire to set their butts down in it.

From the other side, however, the job description isn’t quite what the aspirant might think:

The federal sentencing regime is the one aspect of being a federal trial judge for which there is no comparable experience that a judicial candidate can draw upon for help. Trust me. I don’t care whether you were a prosecutor, criminal defense lawyer, civil practitioner, a judge from the state courts, or even a federal magistrate judge, when it comes to federal criminal sentencing, you’re unprepared.

For anyone who has stood in the well of a federal courtroom, listening for the dulcet tones of the judge to speak those magic numbers that usually come in threes and end with the word months, because 121 months sounds so much kinder than 10 years, the power of the job seems awesome.  From the far end of the room, the power may not appear as great.

The best way to think about it is to ask yourself this question: “Am I a willing judicial executioner, a person who consciously does great harm to other human beings by faithfully executing the extraordinarily harsh national criminal laws?”  Those who covet a federal trial judgeship should think hard about this truth before pursuing the job.

Just the other day, another senior judge, Jack Weinstein, who sits in a courtroom in Brooklyn, was smacked by the judges one level up for having refused to do great harm.  He wasn’t taking it quietly, and gave them a bit in return.  But Judge Weinstein had only biting words left, as the 2d Circuit had the power to compel him to do what he considered to be great harm anyway. Not with a gun or a club, but with the fiat that makes the judiciary the least dangerous branch: the law.

Judge Kopf’s reputation on the bench wasn’t exactly that of the pushover, a bleeding heart who couldn’t bring himself to drop the hammer when he chose to.  That’s not to say that he can’t concede a mistake, as he did when he sentenced Shon Hopwood.  He explained that his “sentencing instincts sucked.” Maybe this informed him that the job was harder, more unpleasant, than he thought it would be when his name was put into the hat.  Maybe it’s that he’s assumed senior status, which frees a judge to speak more freely and say the things that Senators hate to hear because it condemns their hard work saving the children from whatever monster was last on the front page of the paper.

Whatever changed, Judge Kopf shows no reluctance to make it clear now.

But stripped of the BS that allows good people to do bad things, here is the essential truth: When sentencing people, federal trial judges literally and consciously destroy lives and most do so on a daily basis. . . . Be careful what you ask for. You have no idea what the hell you’re getting into.

A while back, my friend Mark Bennett, the Texas Tornado, showed me a sentencing memorandum that was comprised essentially of a paraphrase from the Bible, Micah 6:8:

Do justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly.

This seems to mean more at the exit interview than the job interview.  Some may argue that the faithful execution of the law is the sworn duty of a federal judge, and if the law seems too harsh for a person of good conscience, then it’s not the right job for him.

But then, that leaves us only with federal judges who feel no qualms about the destruction of lives on a daily basis.  At least until they assume senior status, when they realize that sold their soul for the job of judicial executioner.

 

 

 

 

5 comments on “Wanted: Robed Executioner

  1. Chris Bradley

    You are, then, intimating that most people (“monsters” excluded, perhaps) who are accused and convicted of federal crimes are essentially not deserving of their sentences. Is minimum sentencing to blame, in cases of lower-level drug crime, for example? When you say that federal judges destroy lives on a daily basis when it comes to sentencing, I get the impression that it’s this way in almost every case.

    1. SHG Post author

      Ah, my dear Chris.


      When you say that federal judges destroy lives on a daily basis when it comes to sentencing, I get the impression that it’s this way in almost every case.

      I merely repeat. It is Judge Kopf who says so. I concur. But what he says isn’t that this is so in “almost every case,” but on a daily basis.

      1. Chris Bradley

        I suppose it only takes one case like that to overshadow your day, not to mention your entire career.

        1. SHG Post author

          For most people, destroying one life a day would be considered a pretty awful thing. But it takes time to realize that you’re not just “doing your job,” but needlessly harming others in the process. That’s when you come to understand that you’re having a bad day.

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