The Human Side of Being a Judge
Justice in the Courtroom—But Compassion, Too
People often ask me how judges manage to hear certain cases without becoming upset or emotional. Indeed, I've been taught that the ideal judge is one who is "dispassionate" in the judicial role. Webster defines this quality as "free from passion, emotion or bias; calm, impartial."
However, in any judge's career there is bound to be a case that most sorely tests and defines the limits of the judge's ability to be dispassionate. For me, it was a child abuse case more than eight years ago involving a 9-year-old victim. Let's call her Judy.
During a lengthy preliminary examination in which her grandfather was accused of sexually molesting Judy over several years, she had been able to testify tearfully about the vile acts committed against her. As the magistrate during this proceeding, it was my duty to determine whether there was sufficient cause to require the grandfather to stand trial for the crimes alleged to have been committed against Judy.
It is difficult enough, even for a trained person, to hear a story like Judy's without exhibiting emotion or passion. But then the question was asked, "Judy, what made you decide to tell your mother about the things that your grandfather had been doing to you?" Judy broke into tears again and sobbed, "When I went to church camp last summer, I learned that because of what happened I will never to go Heaven."
A tremendous surge of emotion overcame me; I called a recess to permit Judy to be comforted by her mother and for me to regain my composure. Outwardly I may have appeared calm, but I retired to my chambers - where I cried.
It is not unusual in sexual abuse cases involving children for the victims to blame themselves for participating in the criminal conduct. This guilt may be purposely instilled by the perpetrator to help ensure the child's silence, or it may arise from the child's growing understanding that the conduct is unnatural, immoral and wrong. In Judy's case, this sense of guilt became unbearable as a result of her experience in summer camp.
After composing myself, I took the bench to resume the proceeding. Before testimony resumed, I looked at her and said, "Judy, I hope I go to Heaven for I know without a doubt that you will be there someday."
I then continued to hear the evidence, convinced that I could fairly and impartially assess it—without passion as a judge, but hardly dispassionate toward Judy as a human being.
Over the years, whenever I think of Judy—and it happens often—the emotion and passion are there in an instant. As I do my job and administer justice, I have endeavored to make very decision the right one under the law, fairly and dispassionately. I believe in due process and do not hesitate to afford those accused of crimes the full extent of the rights to which they are entitled under the law.
Despite the perceived erosion of public support for the "rights of the accused," I believe that the strength of our democracy depends on a firmly rooted commitment to protecting the constitutional rights of all persons, including those accused of crimes. And I believe in appropriate punishment and rehabilitative efforts for those convicted of crimes.
However, I think I can speak for all the women and men who constitute the judiciary of California when I say that justice and compassion are not mutually exclusive. This I believe passionately. For, there is a part of me that cries for victims. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Source: Adapted from an article in The Sacramento Bee by Randolph R. Loncke, a Sacramento Municipal Court Judge.