Going to Court? What Do You Know About Your Judge?

Some research and key questions can tell you what to expect, but ethics standards try to ensure that judges, who are only human, remain impartial.

A sculpture of Lady Justice holding scales and wearing a blindfold.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We often hear, “Justice is blind.” The saying refers to the way judges and juries are required to make decisions based only on the information presented to them, rather than on personal experiences or whom they like most.

This expression also means that justice is impartial and objective, and often accompanying this statement is an image of Lady Justice wearing a blindfold, to symbolize not treating friends differently from strangers or wealthy people better than the poor.

“Judges aren’t computers into which you pour data and out pops a decision,” observes retired California Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Mohr, author of Every Other Weekend: Coming of Age with Two Different Dads (opens in new tab), coming Feb. 14.

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“Justice is delivered by people whose upbringing and experiences impact the way they see the world,” he underscores, adding, “Justice isn’t completely blind, it is human. And wouldn’t it be helpful to have insight into those aspects of the judge who will be trying your case? That question leads us to another: What are the factors that go into making a good jurist? What hints should lead a lawyer to disqualify a judge?”

 Judge Mohr then set out a by-the-numbers list of what lawyers and clients should do before they step into the courtroom — how to learn as much as possible about that person who could have a major impact on your business and on your life:

Research the judge to discover their negative aspects. Google is your best friend. Plug in their name. Doing this should bring up their background and articles written by or about them. Be wary of angry lawyers who lost. They may say nasty things about the judge because they lost, even though they should have lost!

Ask friends who might have appeared before the judge or lawyers for their opinion. Call bar associations and ask if the judge has a reputation for good judicial temperament. Is the judge considered to be intelligent? Is the judge lazy or doesn’t keep up with the news?

Does the judge have a bias and a reputation for consistently ruling in favor of one side over the other? Does the judge dislike women or people of color?

Go on Lexis or Westlaw to research the judge’s written opinions and rulings. Do the opinions make sense? Is the writing snarky? Does the judge belittle the parties without apparent justification? Do the cases stand for what the judge claims they do?

The Eight Pillars of Being a Judge

Mohr was quick to point out that in California and many other states, ethics committees articulate qualities that a good judge must possess. California terms them the Eight Pillars of Being a Judge (opens in new tab).

1. Being Mindful That You Are a Judge.

You are a judge wherever you are, 24/7. This means that your behavior must be

respectful at all times. Mohr puts it this way, “You can’t walk into a restaurant and say, ‘Give me my table now. I’m a judge!’”

2. Exercise Mindfulness in the Courtroom and Pay Attention!

You need to be aware at all times of what is happening in the courtroom. Has a juror apparently fallen asleep? Is a lawyer signaling a witness with hand gestures? Are spectators acting up?

“You must address these issues immediately. For example, when I’ve suspected that a juror has fallen asleep, I will drop a book to make noise, which usually wakes them up without embarrassment.”

3. Follow the Law. Don’t Make Up the Rules as You Go Along.

If you are in doubt about what the statute says, open up the appropriate book, which should be within arm’s reach, and look it up! Don’t assume if you’re unsure.

4. Be Aware of Your Biases or Prejudices, Which We All Have to Some Extent.

Keep an open mind and never hesitate to disqualify yourself if you know deep down that you just can’t be fair in the case before you.

For example, in criminal cases, do not allow the defendant’s appearance to influence your rulings.

5. Do Not Get Personally Involved in the Case.

Do not take things personally. Your only job is to administer justice fairly. If you don’t like a particular lawyer or party, stop yourself from acting in an unfair manner. Do not aim for, or hope for, a particular result!

You’ve got to be polite to all parties and as patient as possible.

7. Courage!

If the correct decision in the case you are handling will make you unpopular, you still have a legal and moral duty to make that decision.

As an example, in a desegregation case many years ago, a Los Angeles judge ordered busing to desegregate the city’s schools. This was an important step in furthering civil rights, but it resulted in the judge being challenged in an election and losing.

But he did the right thing. Our system of justice depends on judges having the courage to do the right things and not succumb to political pressure.

8. Accept the Fact That You Will Make Mistakes and Some of Your Rulings Will Be Reversed.

But you have to go along with the higher court’s decision.

I could not put down Judge Mohr’s book (I received an advance copy). Every Other Weekend conveys the feelings of someone who has been witness to highly unique emotional experiences that made him exquisitely aware of suffering, unfairness and the desire as a jurist to handle them head on.

Mohr’s memoir should be required reading for every student taking a course in Family Law. It provides a unique insight into those factors that have shaped a jurist’s view of the world and why a healthy, stable family is so critical to that adult who, years down the road, will put on a black robe and be addressed as “Your Honor.”

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com (opens in new tab).

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC (opens in new tab) or with FINRA (opens in new tab).

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law (opens in new tab)." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."