Judy Scheindlin was once a real judge, sitting in the Family Court in Manhattan. She was a tough, no-nonsense judge with an edge to her, and she managed to pull it off. But when she got a gig on TV as America’s bitchiest judge, where it was part of her schtick to crack wise and nasty in every case, she became a caricature that fed the viewers’ angst and frustration with what they perceived as our absurd system. Judge Judy knew who was lying before they even opened their mouth. Judge Judy could smell a faker across the courtroom. Judge Judy was a TV character.
Via Bad Lawyer, Washington Judge Judith Eiler, on the other hand, doesn’t just play judge on TV. By channeling the other Judge Judy, Eiler ended up in trouble. For the third time.
Judge Judith Eiler doesn’t suffer fools lightly. Even before today’s state Supreme Court decision to suspend her for five days on account of rudeness, the judge had twice felt the velvet glove of reprimand come down on her wrist.
In 2005, she was scolded for being too sarcastic and whistling at clients and lawyers to get their attention. Yet she vowed to continue practicing her “straightforward, plain-talking” approach to jurisprudence.
Last year, the Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended a 90-day suspension without pay for “a pattern or practice of rude, impatient, undignified, and intimidating treatment.” Again, Eiler was unmoved.
“If I wanted people to love me, I wouldn’t have chosen to be a judge,” she told KIRO-TV. “I don’t sugarcoat stuff…I don’t use a lot of gobbledygook.”
And what did Judge Eiler do that was so awful as to compel her suspension?
“Statements by a judge implying that a litigant is an ‘idiot’ or ‘stupid’ and the rendering of other derisive comments about persons who are before the judge is not conduct that engenders respect for the judiciary or provides confidence in the impartiality of the justice system,” wrote Justice Gerry Alexander, in an unsuccessful effort to argue for a longer suspension.
Nowhere in the judges’ handbook does it require jurists to employ sugarcoating or gobbledygook in the performance of their duties. But when you put on a robe, part of the deal is that you exercise discretion and hold that sharp tongue. It’s not that judges don’t think that people are idiots, but they can’t say it. They just can’t.
The problem, of course, is that Judge Judy is unbelievably popular, maybe even one of the best things to happen to the legal system, as far as the public is concerned, in a long time. People love to watch Judge Judy jump to baseless conclusions and rip people’s lungs out through their nose. Swift, brutal justice. How fun! Unless you happen to be the one whose nostrils are at stake.
Does Judy Scheindlin serve as a role model for real judges who both agree with her “take no prisoners” approach and, as it happens, see the power of the robe as an opportunity to vent their spleen? No one says that any judge has to suffer fools lightly, but that doesn’t mean that they can use their authority to abuse the litigants or lawyers before them.
If a 90 day suspension last year, following her 2005 discipline, didn’t serve to clue Judge Eiler in that her behavior on the bench was unacceptable, it’s pretty likely that a five day suspension now isn’t going to do it. There is nothing that sends the message that the legal system couldn’t care less about its own integrity, or the dignity of the people it serves, than a judge with an intemperate mouth. As Eiler had made clear that she will spew again, this sanction seems absurd.
Want to be able to speak your mind freely and without constraint? Become a blawger. Want to be given the authority to make decisions that affect other human being’s lives, show some judicial temperament. If you can’t do it, don’t wear the robe. We already have a Judge Judy, and we don’t need a Judge Eiler. Take off the robe.