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.