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October 01, 2007

October 2007: The Honorable Michael J. Kurz

California Judge Uses Disability to Ensure Better Communication Within His Courtroom

In order to be a judge, one needs to make sure that all sides of a case are considered. No story has just one side, otherwise law suits would never be brought. Senior Administrative Law Judge Michael Kurz of California takes this basic tenant of sitting on the bench to heart.

Since 2002, Judge Kurz has been a senior administrative law judge for the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. His work for the Appeals Board includes conducting unemployment insurance hearings, disability hearings, and employment tax cases. Before donning the robes, Judge Kurz attended Loyola University Law School Los Angeles. For eighteen years he practiced business, tort, and bankruptcy law at his own boutique litigation firm.

As a young child, Judge Kurz contracted polio. While his father was stationed in Guam, a military officer came to the island with the disease. Unfortunately, Michael was unable to receive inoculation due to an ear infection. With no vaccine, he contracted the disease. Polio, which was very common then but rare today, attacks the spinal cord and can cause muscle weakness and often paralysis. The judge currently has post-polio syndrome whereby his muscles, which were partially rebuilt after his initial episode, have re-weakened.

Michael Kurz’s true talent as a judge comes from his ability to identify and appreciate the skill of communication. Judge Kurz realizes that when a case comes before him, there are various sides to the story—including those which may not even be intentionally presented by the parties. The ability to listen and know what to ask next are key to his success in the courtroom. Judge Kurz credits his appreciation of communication to several personal growth workshops he attended, which allowed him to better understand human psychology, and particularly his own psychology.

“I have found that people speak, more often than not, very literally. To be able to listen to their words and then evaluate their actions, in comparison, reveals many truths about a person. Most people assume what is being said, as opposed to listening to what really was said, and hence conflict ensues,” Kurz says. “By extracting information through a series of questions us jurists, whether representing clients or wearing the robes, are able to get to the heart of the matter. Nothing is worse than having a witness or a lawyer say ‘You know what I mean?’ because, no, I don’t know what they truly mean.”

These insights also translate well into the realm of disability law and disability cases. Even though Judge Kurz believes that his disability does not affect his ability to be a lawyer or a judge (so long as he can get to court on time), he notes that having a disability can affect how one communicates with others in a legal setting. According to Judge Kurz, those who appear before him who have a disability usually take on two roles. One group typically has the victim mentality; they are bringing their suit because they feel they have been wronged or slighted. The other group are those who feel they have to overcome their disability; these individuals are using the court system to vindicate the rights they posses as a disabled person. Yet no matter what group a plaintiff is in, Judge Kurz makes sure to take note of it. “You need to see which of the two [groups] they are using to move on in life,” says Kurz, “Knowing this point of view can enable me, as a judge, to see where they are coming from and thus make better deliberations and reach a better judgment.”