A Failure To Communicate

Among the skills one would find desirable in a judge, such as intelligence, fairness, honesty and an even temperament, the ability to communicate with others would be right up there. Not only the ability to write and speak clearly and comprehensibly, but to listen to others and grasp what they are saying.

You see, some folks who come before a judge aren’t the most articulate, and often speak in a vernacular that’s foreign to the sanitary world of official lawyers and judges. Elyria, Ohio, Municipal Court Judge Gary Bennett made himself the posterjudge for this point.  Via Gideon at A Public Defender:

Ebony Burks was before him for arraignment, notably without a lawyer at this critical juncture in her case.  She was apparently charged with domestic abuse of some sort, though the details aren’t available.  Not to suggest anything about domestic abuse or violence, but there is invariably a question of why, if a charge is sufficiently serious, an individual appears before a judge for arraignment and the fixing of bail without counsel. In this case, Burks faced two charges, both of which carried a maximum penalty of incarceration for six months.  Obviously, she didn’t kill anyone.

But it is similarly clear that the conditions imposed on top of the $7500 per count bail, an amount that likely wasn’t pocket change to Burks, meant that she could not go home in the foreseeable future.  This is a big deal.  And in response to Judge Bennett’s fixing of conditions for bail, Burks uttered these words:

“How you going to tell me I can’t go to my home?”

She was not inquiring as to the judge’s facility with language that allowed certain sounds to emit from his mouth.  She asked a very legitimate question of very grave concern to any human being who has just been cavalierly informed that she is now, by judicial fiat, homeless.

Any lawyer who has spent time in the trenches understands the gist of Burks’ question.  It’s not that she questions the court’s authority, per se, but that the order creates a wholly untenable situation.  If she can’t go home, where will she go?  Where will she live? How will she survive?

What about her clothing, her possessions? They may be meager, but they’re hers. What about the familiarity of sleeping in one’s own bed after the trauma of whatever gave rise to the charges, the arrest, the fear and loathing of appearing before a judge in court?  These are the sorts of thoughts that run through the mind of a person in Burks’ position, and they manifest themselves in the question, “How you going to tell me I can’t go to my home?”

Judge Gary Bennett is no kid.  From his court bio:

Judge Gary C. Bennett was elected to the bench in November, 2009, for the term commencing January 1, 2010. Although newly elected, Judge Bennett is not new to the Elyria Municipal Court. Prior to his election, he served for 10 years as an acting judge for both Judge Locke Graves and Judge Musson. Judge Bennett also served as a Traffic Magistrate for the court from September  2005, until he took the bench in January  2010.

Prior to his election, Judge Bennett engaged in private practice for 32 years. He also served as the Lorain County Prosecutor and Solicitor for the Village of LaGrange. His community service included 18 years on the Elyria Board of Education, 3 years on the Joint Vocational Board, 11 years on the Lorain County Children Services Board, 4 years on the Lorain County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and several years on the Elyria Summer Theatre Board.

Despite his 32 years of private practice, his many official board positions and his self-ascribed dedication to the community, there is nothing to indicate that he ever spent time with someone like Ebony Burks.  From his M-H listing, his practice areas don’t appear to have covered the trenches:

Civil Practice; Family Law; Divorce; Alimony; Uncontested Divorce; Spousal Support; Separation Agreements; Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs); Premarital Agreements; Postnuptial Agreements; Post Divorce Modification; Paternity; Restraining Orders; Name Changes; Marital Property Distribution; Marital Property Law; Marital Property Settlements; Family Mediation; Family Arbitration; Equitable Distribution; Divorce Taxation; Divorce Mediation; Divorce Arbitration; Annulment; Government Agency Practice; Trial Practice and School Law

While Ms. Burks may well have need of a matrimonial lawyer, it’s unlikely that Bennett would have been the right fit.  So while 32 years of practice may well have provided him the time to learn how to communicate with people who don’t sit on the important and august boards of charitable causes, he failed to avail himself of the opportunity.

In response to Ebony Burks’ question, Judge Gary Bennett responded:

“I just did,” Bennett replied.

Clueless. Heavy-handed. Cavalier.  A woman asked him how she’s going to survive, and a judge responded, I don’t give a damn.  Nice.

This challenge to her autonomy, to her dignity, to her survival started a ball rolling that ended with Bennett, the root of the problem, imposing a 300 day sentence for contempt of court.  Mind you, she faced six months for the crime that brought her before the court, but no crime of domestic abuse is more serious than not showing Judge Bennett the obsequiousness he demands, even if it’s the product of his own ignorance and intemperance. After all, he spent 32 years working up to the robe, and he has a ring in need of kissing.

As the court appears came to a close, with the full 180 days under her belt already, Ebony Burks had this exchange with Judge Bennett:

Burks makes an off camera remark, gets a 200 day sentence, and then Bennett asks Burks if she has anything more to say.

“F— you,” Burks replies, bringing the 300 day sentence.

It may not have been in Latin, but her words could not have been more appropriate.  As of now, the contempt sentence remains intact, Ebony Burks in jail and Judge Gary Bennett on the bench, full of the righteous indignation of a defendant who failed to appreciate his grandness and power.

Yet, Burks understood what happened in the courtroom far better than Gary Bennett ever will, and so the good people of Elyria, Ohio, will continue to pay for a judge who lacks both the temperament, intelligence, and most importantly, communication skills, to do the job without proving himself an insecure spoiled child with far too much power.  This, of course, is what Ebony Burks was trying to say in her final words to Judge Bennett, but he didn’t get that either.

21 comments on “A Failure To Communicate

  1. william doriss

    Anyone who has ever appeared before an intemperate judge will appreciate this video clip. We feel for Ebony Burks and wish her the best. Thanx a bunch for a small snippet of entertainment in a courtroom near you.

  2. Turk

    I think the judge’s conduct in the video is actually worse than you describe. It isn’t the job of a judge to escalate an encounter to make it worse.

  3. John Barleycorn

    I think you are seriously underestimating Burks’
    perfectly timed “OK..and….?” as the contempt days were being ratcheted upward followed by in essence Burke getting in the finial word with.. “What else you got to say!?”.

    To his credit Bennet did not at that precise juncture take the bait and go off at length to disclose the laundry list of how Ms. Burks’ immediate “contempt” of his “AuTHorITY” was in fact merely
    the smoldering crater of the volcanic underbelly of his true thoughts.

    And what’s up with the Bailiff
    excusing himself to the judge?
    Did he miss something in the training manual that says deploy the taser, no matter what, after the third retort from a defendant? Surely he won’t be disciplined for not taking preemptive first rule preventive measures will he?

    This is going to make a great remix. Especially when the “I just did”, “I bet I do” “Get Back”, “180 Days” “OK..And..!?” “What else you got to say?”, “Get your hands off me”, “Oh nothing…we will talk in six months” and “excuse me your honor”, get all deliciously mixed up, positioned this way and that, tweaked here and there, amplified as they are, overplayed with some historical lyrics, and repeated over and over to an ever increasing crescendo of a kaleidoscopeing beat.

    I think I might have to call it Ebony the Cheery Cherry & Gary the Lava Monsters Morning K-I-S-S.

    It has been said that perespective is critical to good communication.

    1. SHG Post author

      I hadn’t given sufficient thought to her finial words, but yes, there is nothing that ends a troubled conversation better than a well-turned finial.

  4. SPO

    A society where people can be tossed in prison for cursing out a public official isn’t a free society.

    I am a law and order guy. But I am a freedom guy too.

  5. chug

    The scariest part is in his official bio:

    “Judge Bennett was also recently named to the Education Committee of the Association of Municipal/County Judges of Ohio. The committee is responsible for providing legal education for judges across the state of Ohio. ”

    Wonder if he’ll use the video as a teaching aid.

    1. SHG Post author

      Well, he is the poster boy. If he had only ended it with, “Sorry, Ms. Burks. I was only kidding, trying to create a video to teach other judges what they should never, under any circumstances, do.” But, of course, he didn’t do that.

  6. Pingback: Open thread and link farm: Rainy Day Edition | Alas, a Blog

  7. harlemjd

    She was absolutely questioning his authority to tell her what to do, but the judge was totally wrong to escalate the situation the way he did. He should have warned her of the consequences of going back to the home she shares with the man she was arrested for assaulting let her post bail, and then seen her back in court next week when she was arrested for violating the conditions of her bail.

    1. SHG Post author

      She was? Cuz you say so? Well, that settles everything then, because whenever an anonymous commenter on the internet says something was “absolutely” something, it absolutely was.

  8. LostSailor

    Any lawyer who has spent time in the trenches understands the gist of Burks’ question. It’s not that she questions the court’s authority, per se, but that the order creates a wholly untenable situation. If she can’t go home, where will she go? Where will she live? How will she survive? What about her clothing, her possessions? They may be meager, but they’re hers. What about the familiarity of sleeping in one’s own bed after the trauma of whatever gave rise to the charges, the arrest, the fear and loathing of appearing before a judge in court?

    Who cares? I fully expect that she is being defended here because she is a woman and a woman of color is a bonus.

    This type of order happens to men all the time when there are accusations of domestic violence and assault and we don’t see any hand-wringing about that.

    Let’s switch things around. A man is brought before the judge for arraignment on a domestic abuse charge and an assault charge. He’s given bail and essentially a restraining order saying he can’t go near the alleged victims and if he lives with one of the victims, then he can’t go home until the order is lifted. In response he mouths off to the judge essentially saying “who are you to tell me I can’t go to my home?”

    Would anyone here be thinking that the thought process the man is going through is worry and concern about how will he live, how will he survive, what about his things, his missing his familiar bed? No, the standard assumption would be that in cases of domestic violence, he just wants to get back to his victim. And getting a long sentence for repeatedly mouthing off to the judge would be seen as evidence of poor judgement and impulse control and the 300 days would be applauded.

    I won’t even touch the thinking behind talking about the “trauma of whatever gave rise to these charges” (that she committed domestic violence against a man and assault against a woman) and the fear and loathing of appearing before a judge. Sorry, that’s what accused violent criminals do: they appear before a judge. We think nothing of it when they are men.

    But instead of seeing a victim here, I see a violent person being restrained from close contact with her victims who has poor impulse control and poor decision making skills who mouthed off repeatedly to a judge because she disagreed with his order and questioned his authority. It’s not the judge’s responsibility to treat her with kid gloves, and he was quite polite and professional up to the point when the accused violent criminal started challenging him.

    She got what she deserved….

    1. SHG Post author

      You assumptions are unbelievably wrong and you are a monumental asshole. The reason this post appears is that there was a video of what happened, having nothing to do with her gender or her race. If it had been a white guy, as many other videos here are, it would have been exactly the same.

      If it had been you, after reading your comment, it would be understandable why no one, man or woman, white, black or blue, would care what happened to you.

      1. LostSailor

        I’ll certainly allow that my assumptions may be “unbelievably wrong,” though I would argue not unreasonable. As for being a “monumental asshole,” you’d probably have to ask my ex, though since she’s still friendly toward me, she might disagree.

        But I’m also not a mind reader. The recitation of what this woman was thinking at the imposition of a restriction not to return home if the person she was accused of assaulting lived there can reasonably be construed as justification for her questioning of the order and by extension the judge’s authority. I, of course, have no idea what she was thinking.

        I can only go by what I see in the video and hear on the audio. And I don’t think my contention that a man in similar circumstances would not have received a different outcome is unwarranted. But, then again, I’m not an attorney. I’m just a citizen.

        You write: A woman asked him how she’s going to survive, and a judge responded, I don’t give a damn.. I didn’t hear her ask that. I heard, as you did, her ask “How you going to tell me I can’t go to my home?” That certainly sounds like a challenge to a judge to me. But then again, I’m not a lawyer, just a citizen.

        I also didn’t see or hear a challenge to her autonomy, to her dignity, to her survival. Especially since such orders of restriction are routine for people (or perhaps just men) charged with domestic violence.

        Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken this as a gendered response. If it’s your position that bail with contact restrictions, including barring access to the home where the alleged victim resides, is an inappropriate challenge to autonomy (even though bail usually has the affect of restricting some autonomy), dignity, and survival and justifies a challenge the court and judge in all cases (men or women of any color), then I’d withdraw my comment with apologies.

        In general, I think it’s a bad idea to tell a judge I’m appearing before “fuck you” under any circumstances, whether he needs to hear it or not. But then again, I’m not a lawyer…

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m impressed at your response. Maybe you aren’t as big an asshole as you appeared in that last comment. Here’s the deal (and it applies to everyone, men, women, horses): Burk’s conduct was horrible, but it was a reflection of her ignorance, background and experience rather than her contempt for the judge. The judge could have used it as a teaching experience, if he kept his cool and demonstrated the slightest grasp of people who are not like him. He didn’t.

          No, it’s not a good idea to speak like that to a judge. At the same time, we expect the judge to know better and be better, and he wasn’t. It’s got nothing to do with gender or color, but with a judge’s understanding that people who come before him can speak a different language, mean different things, then he is used to, and it’s the judge’s job to get it.

          As for you ex, that’s your problem. I only care about what happens here.

          1. LostSailor

            Well, since I arrived here via a link on Alas, a Blog, a rather virulent feminist site, it may have colored my perceptions. That’s my bad.

            And while it may have been a teaching moment and it may be that judges should be more understanding in general, Burke’s conduct, as you say, was horrible. Maybe the judge, like we all do, was having a bad day. Maybe the judge isn’t a mind reader like me. Maybe there were other events in the courtroom involving Burke that colored his response. I don’t know.

            My, uh, strong wording of my initial comment was more a reaction to the tone of your post which I took as oh, this poor woman who was only concerned about her survival reacted badly to a common bail condition given the charge and it’s all the judges fault when I didn’t see it that way. I’m all for treating people fairly and compassionately where we can, but saw in your post what I considered a one-sided defense of Burke and a lengthy condemnation of the judge, which, coming here from where I did, I erroneously colored a defense of a female accused domestic abuser against an evil white male judge. Again, my bad. But, frankly, I still read it that way.

            Though I’m still quite friendly with my ex, I may still be a monumental asshole. The jury’s still out on that, so to speak; I, like you, prefer curmudgeon (I did take a quick spin through some post before commenting again, having violated my own rule to read a blog well before commenting).

            While I won’t back down from my opinions when I think they’re well founded, I will readily admit when I’m wrong, and for what it’s worth, you have a new regular RSS reader…

            1. SHG Post author

              I can’t help who links to my posts. Some I like. Some I don’t. Some are crazies. Often, I have no clue who they are. Best to follow your own rule first. It’s a good one.

              Edit: Irony, a was lambasted as a misogynist and a feminist in the same day.

          2. LostSailor

            I’m also not sure that the judge’s understanding about communication differences should extend to horses. If horses backtalk, sass, and disrespect a judge when they’re arraigned for domestic violence…fuck ‘em.

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