The Honorable Shelly Chapman is a federal judge, but of the bankruptcy type. Unlike district court judges, bankruptcy judges don’t hear criminal cases. They are usually bankruptcy lawyers who go on to sit on the bench hearing the same types of cases they knew as practitioners. It’s a specialty thing.
And yet, they were lawyers once. And judges now. So how is this possible?
I love going to court.
There is drama. There is pathos. It is the place I go, as a bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of New York, to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, and to administer justice “without respect to persons.”
No doubt there’s drama and pathos in bankruptcy court. Wherever people’s rights are in issue, drama and pathos follows. But with all due respect to Judge Chapman’s sensibilities, she’s experienced the breadth of legal drama and pathos of a cloistered nun. Welcome to the Bronx.
The title of her Vice post was
I’m a Judge and I Think Criminal Court Is Horrifying
So what you’re saying is that nothing, absolutely nothing, we’ve been saying forever made it onto your radar? Or did you think we’ve been lying, exaggerating perhaps, this whole time? The post is part of a series that “offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system.” While some consider bankruptcy a crime, I doubt that’s what they meant.*
Apparently, Vice doesn’t have a firm grip on what it means to “live and work in the criminal justice system.” And the only ones who “live” there are in cells. The rest of us get to go home afterward. But Judge Chapman certainly doesn’t live or work there. What’s painfully obvious was that this was her first visit to the dirty world of law, as if it never existed until she showed up.
As she took the bench, the judge did not smile, nor did she provide any explanation to those in the gallery of what the process might entail. Instead, she made small talk with the court officers and the assistant district attorney (ADA), as if they’re all on the same side.
The first case was that of a young mother accused of assaulting her husband, allegedly with her ten-month-old child present. This was her first arrest, and the ADA asked for a full protective order for the husband and the child; the woman was pale, slight, and visibly anxious. The public defender helped her remain calm, steadying her at the elbow.
“Your honor,” her lawyer said, “the only reason the police were called in this case is because the husband was upset that my client told him she was going to leave him. He clearly only called the police in retaliation…. He has a drinking problem, and she is scared for her safety and the safety of the child. Right now, she is terrified that her baby has been alone with this man the entire time she’s been detained…. She needs to be able to care for her child, so I’d ask that you make the order of protection limited.”
“Application denied, Counselor,” replied the judge. “She can go to family court tomorrow and get the order modified.” The woman began to sob, but she was quickly rebuked by the court. “Get her out of here,” the judge snapped.
I was shocked at the casual racism emanating from the bench. The judge explained a “stay away” order to a Hispanic defendant by saying that if the complainant calls and invites you over for “rice and beans,” you cannot go. She lectured some defendants that most young men “with names like yours” have lengthy criminal records by the time they reach a certain age.
Is that meant as a deterrent? Is it meant to be inspirational? It got harder and harder to keep my promise to my daughter to “not say a word” in this courtroom.
And Judge Chapman was there for a Sunday morning. Try it for a week, a month, 100 years. It gets worse. Much worse. Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but this isn’t shocking. It’s just another day in the banal world of criminal court. Just because you never knew it existed doesn’t make it new or special.
At this point I had to stop and ask myself: What is going on?
ironically, that’s my question too. How is it possible that a federal judge, even if bankruptcy, had absolutely no clue that this was what happened in those dirty, smelly, nasty criminal courtrooms? How do you enjoy a career in the law, culminating in a black robe, and be so utterly clueless? How wonderful your career must have been that you never got your clothing soiled sitting on a bench, covered in blood, sweat and fecal matter, awaiting your case to be called.
I left that day with my faith in the legal system—to which I have loyally devoted my entire career—shaken. Maybe every judge should take the time to go on a holiday to criminal court. While we all may not be able to agree on what justice looks like, surely we can agree on what injustice looks like.
Maybe judges should, you know, have a clue before they sit in judgment of others? What a great idea! But it’s notable that you didn’t mention the name of the nasty criminal court judge you observed that morning. Were you protecting her? Why? If this was as unjust as you say, why protect her? When you cover her butt, do you not make yourself complicit in her conduct?
But observing criminal arraignments from 30,000 feet is easy. Being outraged to learn that there is a whole world of law that eluded you is easy. Even if you lacked the grit to mention this bad judge’s name, why not give her a call? You’re a federal judge and she’ll take your phone call. Why not ask her whether she thought her “rice and beans” speech was supposed to be a deterrent or inspirational? If the question is worth asking, isn’t it worth getting an answer? Why not tell her that she’s horrifying?
Welcome to the criminal courthouse in the Bronx. Write an outraged story and return to your lovely, clean, marble-staircased courthouse downtown at Bowling Green. And be thankful that you will never have to go to the Bronx again. Others will not be so fortunate.
*This is a joint venture with the Marshall Project, which similarly can’t find the criminal courthouse without mapquest.