Crash Course, or Just Crash?

Judge Ann Pfau was the perfect choice for Chief Administrative Judge of New York State, having been a court administrator since leaving law school.  When she was appointed to the top, everyone nodded their approval.  She was right where she belonged.

And now she’s sitting on a bench in a dump in Brooklyn.  From the New York Times :

On Dec. 1, Ann Pfau, now 64, stopped being New York State’s chief administrative judge, a bureaucratic job that is like being the queen of the courts. After stepping down and being replaced, she wound up in the grimy Supreme Court building in Brooklyn with workaday responsibilities. Among other things, she is now trying jury cases for the first time in a long career, having worked in court administration since graduation from law school. Here, every day is “Judging 101,” and Judge Pfau’s Rules are piling up.

This isn’t to question whether Judge Pfau is smart, fair, hard-working or competent. No one rises to the exalted level of queen of the court without these attributes. But it compels a question that has to be asked: What the heck were they thinking?

Judge Pfau has never tried a case. Not as a lawyer. Not as a judge.

Judge Pfau has never spoken with a client. Judge Pfau has never waited for a decision while a client’s life, business, fortune has disintegrated before her eyes.  Judge Pfau has never had to explain to a child why they won’t be seeing their daddy again until they are fully grown. Judge Pfau has never had to explain to a client why a judge just got it completely wrong and destroyed their lives. 

Instead, Judge Pfau is trying to figure out, for the very first time, how to survive life on the bench. It starts with the basics:

Do not think you are as funny as the lawyers say you are. Sit up straight on the bench. Get the keys to your chambers.

These are a few of Judge Pfau’s Rules, and they are the product of a most unusual judicial education.

It goes on to the banal.

The just-do-it rule. “ ‘Just dive in head first. It’s not like we haven’t all made mistakes,’ ” Justice Laura Jacobson said she had offered as advice.

The tough-it-out rule. “Every judge says that to me: ‘Pretend you know more than you know,’ ” Justice Pfau said. “ ‘Don’t let them see you sweat.’ ”

The you-could-look-it-up rule. There are publications about an amazing selection of judicial topics, including what to do when lawyers shout, “I object!”

Justice Pfau said: “You have to know there is a book called ‘New York Objections.’ It’s a great book.”

The sometimes-you-just-have-to-decide rule. “I was always looking for the rule,” Justice Pfau said, “and someone said, ‘You know, there’s not always a rule.’ And that was a revelation to me.”

The poker-face rule. Judges are supposed to look alert and neutral. “I have to say to myself: ‘Sit up straight,’ ” Justice Pfau said. “And you can’t let your facial expressions show if you think it’s the stupidest question ever asked.”

The when-in-doubt rule. “The only advice I gave her,” said Justice Karen B. Rothenberg, “was, ‘If you have any trouble with anything whatsoever, it’s a good time to take a recess.’ ”

Not all of Justice Pfau’s lessons can easily be reduced to rules. For example, she said, one judge seemed to be asleep. But then he would snap to. What would be the lesson there? Try to keep listening if your eyelids get heavy?

These are the “rules” from the judge’s perspective, the tools to survive in a courtroom stuffed to the gills with lawyers who try case, represent real-life breathing clients, live and die in the courtroom.  But understanding these rules, and knowing which applies when, and more importantly, the impact of these rules on the lives of real people, requires context.  Without experience in the courtroom, there is no context.

Of course, after leaving her post as Chief Administrator, what else could Ann Pfau do than be a trial court judge? She had no practice to return to. She already had the robe.  It’s hard to leave a life where people behave obsequiously around you. Judge it is, then.

On the other hand, had she been a lawyer working in some other bureaucratic capacity her entire career, and decided at 64 that she wanted to be a judge, would anyone have even given her a second thought as being qualified for the job?  Her application wouldn’t have made it past the circular file. There isn’t a thing about her experience that suggests qualifications for the bench. Nothing.

And yet, she now sits in Kings Supreme in charge of a civil trial part.

It may turn out that Judge Pfau is a fabulous judge, one of the best ever to preside in the New York State Supreme Court. Weirder things have happened. I certainly hope so, as no doubt do the litigants and lawyer who will appear before her.  But it doesn’t answer the question.  Rule and roll, Judge.

4 thoughts on “Crash Course, or Just Crash?

  1. Oscar Michelen

    She should ask Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman of the Court of Appeals who rose to that position having only been a court administrator; but then again , he couldn’t be much help since he never tried a case as a lawyer or a judge either.

  2. SHG

    I asked similar questions when it was announced that Judge Lippman would replace Judge Kaye, though as an appellate judge, knowledge of the nuts and bolts of trial work isn’t quite as critical.

  3. Dan

    Maybe I’m imagining things, but when I read the original NYTimes article, the Judge’s tone and that of her colleagues seemed awfully light hearted and jocular. Nice to see everyone having fun.

  4. SHG

    I didn’t get any sense of concern at all. It almost seemed as if they forgot what the rules were about.

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