May 01, 2017

Reflections of a Former Trial Judge: Looking Through the Rearview Mirror

By Judge Neal W. Dickert, Retired

Several years ago, I retired from the bench after 11 years as a general jurisdiction trial judge and returned to the private practice of law. Most of my judicial colleagues thought I left office for the money. I can assure you I did not. Beginning private practice of law at the age of 61 during the worst recession since the Great Depression was hardly an auspicious time to embark on such an endeavor. I truly enjoyed my judicial experience and am proud to have been a judge. I retired primarily because I found that it became increasingly difficult, day after day, to make hard decisions that had a profound impact upon the lives of the people appearing in front of me. I was afraid that I would lose the strength of character to make the hard decisions or, perhaps even worse, would become callously insensitive to the feelings and interests of the litigants I encountered. Neither of these options was palatable.

Since I left office, I have thought about my time on the bench. As a general jurisdiction trial judge, I handled every type of case. Most days were spent making decisions in sentencings, summary judgment motions, discovery disputes, child support recovery actions, and other matters that became somewhat routine. I found that I developed a decision-making style that focused on giving the matter before me my undivided attention and reaching the best decision from the material presented. I found most decisions did not haunt me, in part because one day of making decisions was followed by another day of more decisions. As I reflect on some of the more stressful and difficult cases of my career, however, my thoughts always seem to come back to one case, which resurfaced recently.

It was a habeas corpus death penalty case, and the basic issue was effective assistance of counsel. Needless to say, it was a difficult case, and the decision I made was controversial and unpopular with many people. The case involved testimony that lasted for several weeks in a small and rather intimate courtroom. As a result, I had considerable contact with the parties and their relatives, particularly the family of the victim. In this respect, it was unlike most cases that I had to decide. If one works in a major metropolitan community, or even a middle-sized town, I suspect it is rare to have interaction (outside the courtroom) with the people appearing in court. Let’s be candid. Most of us were probably raised in rather traditional families and went through college and law school without much agony or great sacrifice. Most individuals that judges encounter in court have not been so fortunate. When a judge does have considerable personal contact with the individuals impacted by rulings and can identify with these individuals, tough decisions can become even tougher.


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