The Dilettante Judge

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.

Uh huh.

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.

Uh huh.

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.

28 thoughts on “The Dilettante Judge

  1. Billy Bob

    There’s a reason they call it The Bronx. Nobody says, The Manhattan, The Queens, The Brooklyn or The Staten Island. Thanx for this stunning post.
    Some of us have seen the same disgraceful shenanigans (in other jurisdictions); it’s not just the Bronx, although the borough might top the list. Some of us have been screaming about this Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense for years, and been confronted with never-ending yawns.

    This is a very important posting. Hopefully, something will come of it, but God knows what? The system in place is extremely ossified, to put it mildly. Some of us have actually sat at the defense table in total bewilderment as to the proceedings and the demeanor of the judges.

  2. Alice Harris

    It should be a requirement for judges and prosecutors to spend a week in jail as an anonymous defendant before taking their positions. That would make a difference. I fear nothing else will.

      1. SHG Post author

        This is a longstanding view of the defense bar, that before prosecutors or judges take jail or prison lightly, they should have an appreciation of what it is and what they are condemning another person to endure. A week, or even a night or two, will hardly be sufficient to grasp the implications of a decade or a lifetime, but it’s better than nothing. Right now, they know nothing.

        1. pml

          Well the rules in NY requires judges to view and inspect correctional facilities they can incarcerate people at least once during their term of office.

          Maybe we should make this part of law school education then and get every attorney to spend a week of so there.

          1. SHG Post author

            And that’s inadequate on both counts. Maybe it should be part of a law school education, but it should definitely be part of a prosecutor’s and judge’s.

    1. SamS

      Perhaps we should start at the top. Require governors, attorneys general and state legislators to spend time in prison before taking office rather than after years in office. We might have fewer criminal laws and lighter sentences.

  3. Jay

    You think she has no criminal experience just because she wrote that in her article? Pshaw, you know better.

    I think this is another dig at pretrial incarceration issues in state court. It’s only missing a paragraph on the positives of using pretrial services and doing away with bond. What these advocates don’t seem to get is, in state court, people go to trial and litigate cases more often than in federal court because the prosecutors don’t have the same draconian penalties to threaten them with. If I had to choose between “rice and beans” judge and “I don’t know how to be a judge so I’m going to rely on the guidelines” judge, I’ll pick the former. Thanks.

  4. John Barleycorn

    You always come back so refreshed and focused when you go on vacation to criminal court esteemed one.

    I bet if William were ever to complete his opus melody about how they rattle the chains of indictment in New Haven and Hartford Alice style, Fubar might be forced to return from the literal or fuguritive Judicial purgatory where he roams to clear things up from time to time again. Especially when such delicious plums present themselves from the benches of “bankruptcy” to be channeled through the recesses of the crease in your favorite solied suits.

    P.S. I woukd like to think that most federal judges, still go rotary dial at the kitchen table, at the end of a snarled thirty foot cord, when they reach out for their heart to heart chats but I sometimes I wonder…

      1. wild bill

        Wild Bill likes both Barleycorny and Fubaristic, but thinks Barleycorn is too long-winded and Fubar makes himself scarce. How do you like them apples?

        Over and out. (Bronx cheer!)

  5. B. McLeod

    It only makes sense for a judge who wants to rule “without respect to persons” to go on the occasional field trip to see how it is done.

  6. Franklin Michaels

    Putting aside the snarky tone of the piece – and what’s the point of writing without snark? – you have made a point before of being open to the presumption that if smart people can’t seem get from A to B, there might be a reason.

    Other than having been admittedly naive to the world of local and state criminal courts, your specific criticism of Judge Chapman lies in her failure to ” . . . 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 consider the constraint under which Judge Chapman wrote – and more likely than not sought to vet the piece among her colleagues – specifically the first sentence of Section 3(A)(6) of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, “A judge should not make public comment on the merits of a matter pending or impending in any court,” and that of its Commentary: “The admonition against public comment about the merits of a pending or impending matter continues until the appellate process is complete.”

    And while it’s easy to suggest that judge was – in the here and now – hiding behind Sec. 3(A)(6), that doesn’t look forward the day (at the very latest when the Circuit Court of Appeals solicits comments on her reappointment to another 14 year term, and the aggrieved (or former) state court judge writes in at full throttle, arguing that the identification of her court constituted comment on an identifiable matter that was at the time pending “or impending” before her. And it’s hard to imagine that – in light of Sec. (3)(A)(6) – another judge would have told her to go for it.

      1. bacchys

        Were we to ask four other lawyers whether 3(A)(6) has anything to do with this we’d get seven different answers…

          1. Patrick Maupin

            Hey, the cookie’s inedible — it’s made out of wheat flour.

            Anyway, for awhile there, I was getting 100% platitudes in my fortune cookies, but I think they’ve figured out the market wants actual fortunes, so the pendulum is swinging back — these days it’s about 80% platitudes and 20% predictions.

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