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May 01, 2017

The Swearing-In

By Judge Bradley S. Knoll

Seems like more pomp and circumstance than I remember. Judges and elected officials are paraded in along with a Sheriff’s Department Honor Guard. It’s a good show. The kids lead the Pledge of Allegiance. The county bar produces the judicial robe and the gavel that will decorate the bench as a silent and unused symbol of 1,000 years of Anglo-American common law tradition.

I have only a few recollections of my own swearing-in ceremony 14 years ago. The euphoria of the election win had worn off and was replaced by a generalized anxiety about my first new job in 25 years. I remember the awkward feel of my crisp new robe and the encounter with the chief judge of the circuit court who, clapping his big paw on my shoulder, cheerfully said, “Don’t worry; you’ll do just fine. Just remember that there’s nothing you can do that I can’t promptly overturn.” The comment, given in jest, was actually very comforting.

Already at my spot on the program. As the chief judge of our court, I’ll be offering my remarks for the swearing in of my newest colleague as a trial judge in the Michigan District Court. These will consist of a brief series of platitudes that will not convey my feelings as a judge about this job and this court in this wonderfully typical small town. Perhaps I’ll share them with you in time, but it’s probably best that you make these discoveries yourself. I’ll keep this simple.

“Thank you all for your attendance today at this ceremony passing the torch from a retiring judge with 30 years’ experience to a new judge who will, in a half hour, have 30 minutes of experience.”

Polite laughter. How does one prepare for a docket involving dozens of cases and small decisions on a daily basis? Small decisions, but not unimportant just because they impact fewer people. For many of the people appearing before you, it will be their first and only court experience. How will you show them that it’s as important to you as it is to them?

“Our new judge will join me and the two other district judges in our county’s three court locations.”

The “People’s Court.” Henry Ford would have been impressed by our ability to process so many matters in the course of a day. You will preside over a court designed for the convenience and ease of access for litigants with smaller claims, landlord-tenant disputes, misdemeanors, and traffic charges. It is also the ground floor for felony cases. You’ll be issuing search warrants and arrest warrants, conducting preliminary examinations and trials. Laughably passionate litigants will need you to resolve civil disputes running to the hundreds of dollars. Otherwise respectable people will become clumsy liars in an effort to avoid a traffic citation. Motions will be filed, limited in scope only by the imagination of the lawyers and their client’s ability to pay. You will be affecting people’s lives.

“Our new judge’s many years of experience in the prosecutor’s office will serve her very well.”

Do all new judges come from the prosecutor’s office? I freely acknowledge that it was a strange and remarkable alignment of the stars that allowed me, a former public defender and general practice lawyer, to survive a seven-opponent election process. Congratulations to you on your successful election achieved through the more traditional path. Be grateful that our state constitution provides for the nonpartisan election of trial judges. It has allowed lawyers like me and you the chance to win the approval of the voters as a result of our community reputation even if we haven’t paid sufficient political dues to have any hope of appointment or partisan nomination.

You’ve spent many years as a clever and resourceful trial attorney. Now you can simply enjoy the drama of the courtroom. There is nothing more pleasing to this old judge than watching two skillful attorneys plying their trade in the give and take of the jury trial. I will lean back in my chair and enjoy the fugue of examination and cross-examination and daydream myself to the quaint northern Michigan courtroom setting of Anatomy of a Murder. I take the place of the judge whose name escapes me; the one who was famous, not as an actor, but for helping to take down Joe McCarthy with his simple question, “. . . have you no decency, Senator?” I keep waiting for Jimmy Stewart’s theatrical tirade and for George C. Scott to make the fatal lawyer error of asking a question where he doesn’t already know the answer.

“There will certainly be challenges.”

Like making 103 confident decisions in a day, after seconds of careful deliberation. Arriving at home, you will experience befuddlement and frozen indecision when asked whether you would like to pick up Chinese or stay in for Italian.

“She will need wisdom and stamina.”

More of the latter than the former. Always take the time to explain even the smallest decisions. People need to know that their voices were heard. You will deliver lectures alternately stern or encouraging. Some of your comments will be profound; others decidedly not. Most will be promptly forgotten by you and many undoubtedly forgotten by the recipients before they leave the building. Some, however, will be remembered by them for the rest of their lives.

Like me, you live in this small Midwest community. People you have judged will serve you at the coffee shop, change the oil in your car, and bump into you in the produce aisle. They will want to speak with you and expect you to remember them. Act like you do. Don’t avoid these encounters. They are your best performance measures.

Take advantage of the blue moon days when the docket collapses to recharge with a slow walk in the sunshine or warm rain. Of course, this is Michigan, where the blustery days outnumber the warm ones. On those days, you might do as I and curl up on the couch with the Lawyers' Edition and savor the great legal writers. Marvel at the progressive genius of Brandeis, the remarkable transformation of Black, or the textualist wit of Scalia. You’ll have some time to understand the “whys” instead of the usual rushed computer search to find the “what.”

“I am confident in her ability to overcome these challenges.”

You are a good person, and that’s all it takes. Even the modest power of this position will allow your good decisions to produce great results. A judge has the shortest job description in the legal system. She follows the law and her conscience.

Now you will apply a fully developed sense of justice that sprouted in your elementary school days when you first whined, “Aw, Mom! That’s not fair!” It’s been burnished by personal and professional experiences, both joyful and tragic. It will leave the court with you in the evening and, before sliding under the blanket, you will need to confront the woman in the mirror and be able to honestly say that you did the best you could.

I think that your career as a judge will be more satisfying if compassion wins out over cynicism. Perhaps you will discover, as I have, that the people who appear before you are more like you than different from you.

“We judges must deal with unpleasant matters.”

And you will suffer. We deal in human tragedy. Autopsy photos of a raped and strangled teenager will be arrayed before you. A forensic pediatrician will describe the process by which an infant’s bones were broken by crushing a Styrofoam cup. A young girl will calmly testify that she endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather because the man made Mom happy and she didn’t want Mom to be unhappy. You won’t forget the anguished face of the father recounting his hopes and dreams for the young son who was killed by the drunk driver.

Some days you will announce a recess in a barely audible voice. You will walk back to your chambers, staring intently at the patterns on the floor, and softly close and lock your door. Your robe drops to the floor and you will weep uncontrollably. Ten minutes later the docket will resume. You are not insane for doing this. You will become insane if you don’t.

“Our community looks to us to deal with these matters fairly and justly and to provide leadership.”

The job will transform you. You are now officially a big deal in this town. Just remember not to act like it. Accept the fact that you can’t indulge some of the guilty pleasures of your past life.

Don’t be just a judge. Be an educator. Explain the law to anyone who asks. Never avoid the media, but never seek its attention. You’re not a lawyer anymore, so don’t threaten to sue every auto mechanic who doesn’t fix your car right. Never tell someone you’re a judge in order to get more than you deserve. Be reminded that you’re just borrowing this robe and this court until it’s time for the next judge to come along.

Finally, I don’t need to say that you and hundreds of other judges are assuming your duties at an uncertain time in our country. The judicial branch may be called upon to provide the moral compass going forward. We’re all in this boat and need to conduct ourselves so that “Equal Justice Under the Law” is a credo and not a slogan.

“I am certain that she will succeed in her position and be an asset to our community and our state trial bench. Please join me in welcoming our newest judge. . . . There will be a reception immediately following.”

Best wishes to you. You’ve earned this job. Like Private Ryan, you need to earn it every day.

Sorry I can’t stay. I’ve got to check to see who needs a search warrant and who needs a bond. Don’t worry though; you’ll do just fine. Just remember that there’s nothing you can do that can’t be promptly overturned.