The Human Side of Being a Judge
Enforcing the Law
Judges often are criticized for letting a defendant go free on a technicality. The following article is adapted from a speech delivered by Judge Frederick R. Daniel, Jr. of the Tiffin (Ohio) Municipal Court at a meeting of a Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police. In this speech, Judge Daniel explains constitutional rights of an accused and the judge’s perspective.
I feel honored by the request to speak to you tonight because I feel that the request reflects back to me some of the respect that I have for you and your organization. I have observed the police officers of my home town as I grew up in Tiffin; and then later as a defense attorney when we were adversaries; then as a city councilman where I sometimes expressed more concern for taxpayers than I did for city employees; and then as law director where sometimes I was on your side and sometimes I represented the administration in grievances and lawsuits in which some of you were involved. Now I observe you as a judge. Every perspective gives a different impression, but I have never been so concerned about understanding or misunderstanding between you and me as I am now as a judge.
I can’t pretend to know what it is like to do your job. We both make many decisions in our jobs which have significant impact on people’s lives; but I make my decisions sitting in a comfortable chair in a well-lighted room; sometimes you make your decisions where it is cold, wet and dark. I usually have plenty of time and resources and the assistance of attorneys; you frequently have to make snap decisions with no resources but your own wits. I’m surrounded by people, with a whole police department right downstairs; you are often alone, and you never known when you might be taking your life in your own hands. I get paid lots of money; you don’t get paid enough.
Ultimately you and I want the same thing—a safe and law-abiding community where we can live and work and raise our families. But we have different jobs, and we are bound by different rules. You arrest upon probable cause, but I can only convict upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You may have worked diligently to find an important piece of evidence, only to hear me tell the prosecutor that the rules of evidence forbid its use at trial. You may know a defendant is guilty and is likely to commit other crimes pending trial; but I must presume that he is innocent and afford to him his constitutional right to bail.
I take no pleasure in doing my job when it frustrates your efforts to create the kind of community we all want. And I worry that not only do you feel frustrated, which you have every right to feel, but also that you may misunderstand the reasons behind my actions. When I find someone not guilty, it doesn’t mean I think you should not have filed the charge. It only means that I think the prosecutor failed to carry the heaviest burden in the law—proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every essential element of the offense. When I release a defendant on bail after you’ve told me he’s dangerous, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe you. It just means that I’m enforcing his constitutional right to have bail set to ensure his return to court and for no other purpose. If I suppress evidence which you have obtained, it doesn’t mean that I think you are a bad officer. It only means that in the heat of the moment, you didn’t do everything the way the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, sitting in their comfortable, well-lighted rooms, think you should have. Or, it could mean that you did everything right and I made a mistake.
An older, experienced judge was once talking with a younger judge who had just been sworn in for the first time. And the older judge asked the younger judge if he knew what his job was in making decisions; and the younger judge said, “Yes, I should make decisions which are just and fair.” And the older judge said, “No, you should make decisions which enforce the law.”
That distinction is important, because people may disagree about what is just and fair. We Americans decided long ago to be a nation of laws and not men. That is why I take my oath to enforce the law very seriously. That is why I try to enforce all the laws, even the ones I dislike, even the ones I disagree with.
It must be clear to you by now that this speech is more for my benefit than it is for yours. I tried to think of something you might find more interesting or entertaining. But I felt compelled to take this opportunity to say to all of you, at one time, what I’ve wanted to say a hundred times to you individually: I respect you all for the people you are and the jobs that you do, and I would never pretend to be able to fill any pair of your shoes. I am honored to be the judge whenever any of you steps into the courtroom.
Source: “Enforcing the Law” by Judge Frederick R. Daniel, Jr., Guide to Educating the Public About the Courts , ABA Division for Public Education, 1994.