A Behind-the-Scenes Peek at Sitting on the Bench

Today’s post is part of a series on professionals sharing tips and expertise in order to help novelists convey accuracy in their fiction. If you are writing any scenes that include doctors, lawyers (posts here and here), investigators, or law enforcement officials, be sure to study these posts (and print them out for reference).

The following guest post is from Judge S. V. Brown, a former attorney who has been on the bench in California for three years:

If you are writing legal fiction, chances are you will have a scene in a courtroom. If you choose to include such a scene, don’t forget that the judge does not have to be a boring fringe character who issues rulings without emotion.

A courtroom is an emotionally charged environment, and judges are not immune to it. Give your judge depth and character and think about how your judge would respond in the scenarios you create. I have been a superior court judge a little over three years, and here are a few insights I can share about sitting on the bench.

Judges Are Not Know-It-Alls

When you see a judge, it’s easy to think, “This is the person with all the answers.” While judges have special training and access to resources, there is no special endowment of wisdom you get when you put on that robe. 

One day you’re a lawyer and the next day you’re a judge. One day people ignore you, they next day you have your own parking space, your own bathroom, and the biggest chair in the room—and people stand when you enter a room. When you put that robe on, people expect you to have all the answers and instantly know all statutory references and case law, with citations. It can be overwhelming.

The best advice I received was that I wasn’t expected to know it all. If I didn’t know the answer, I could always ask the lawyers to brief the issue or take a short recess and find the answer.

Judges Have Feelings Too

In the same way lawyers don’t magically download the penal code and case law, our emotions do not automatically dry up. Contrary to popular belief, judges have emotions and sometimes have bad days. There are things, issues, and people that push our buttons and make us angry, sad, or even bore us to tears.

I don’t know of any judge who is not affected by hearing from the family members of a victim of drunk driving, listening to a child who has suffered abuse, or making the decision to remove a child from a home.

People are in court because either a relationship has deteriorated such that they cannot resolve an issue or someone has been wronged or injured in some way. Think about how these loaded issues affect your judge and how she would respond to the issues and people.

In the criminal law arena, we are dealing with very heavy emotional issues. Someone has been wronged or injured in some way, and someone has been charged with committing that offense.

Not only are the parties emotional but the lawyers can be emotional as they advocate for their client or their position. To add to this charged environment, the stakes could not be higher. In a criminal matter, a person’s liberty is on the line, be it for a few days or several years.

We judges are or should be very self-aware of how we’re feeling on any given day about any given issue, as we cannot let our emotions or bad days interfere with our duty, in order to be fair and impartial.

No One Is Impartial

Keep in mind that no one comes to the bench completely impartial. Judges bring to the bench the same biases and issues that all people have. Sometimes it’s an issue like driving under the influence or a child-abuse case that will trigger some emotion or bias in a judge. Sometimes it’s people. There are certain personality types and character traits that can rub a judge the wrong way.

Remember also that the judge was likely once a colleague of those who now appear before her and they may have long histories. I’m sure there will be those whom she liked and respected and those she may not have cared for, and the reverse may be true. It can make for an interesting interaction.

A Peek into Chambers

Another rich area to explore is what happens in chambers. As I’m sure you know from reading this blog, it is rare when there are surprises in court. This is because when there is a contentious issue, the lawyers submit their arguments in writing. The judge often has several days to review the briefs, study the issue, and decide how she will rule.

Some judges reveal how they are leaning in chambers and others never tip their hand. Lawyers hate not knowing what’s coming. I always did. Also, in chambers, the lawyers are not worried about the decorum of the courtroom and can be frank about how they feel about an argument, a piece of evidence, or even one another. The judge can speak freely without each word being captured by the court reporter. Take advantage of this dynamic—this is where the sparks can really fly.

Give Your Judge a Real, Human History

Remember that the judge was not always a judge. The judge was once a child, and just as childhood experiences shape others, they shape judges. That’s why there are conservative judges, liberal judges, and quirky judges.

Some judges are very formal on the record, in chambers, and even when you see them in the grocery store. Others judges are always approachable and easy-going.

When developing a judicial character, it might be helpful to think about why that person decided to become a lawyer in the first place. Were they a prosecutor or a defense attorney, or did they practice civil law? What motivated them to become a judge? Did they have character, integrity, and a strong work ethic before they took the bench? If they didn’t, chances are they didn’t gain those things just because they wear the robe. Considering all these things will help you create a balanced character.

The bottom line is that judges are no different from anyone else. Whatever issues people deal with—dating, getting married, getting divorced, unruly children, aging parents, substance abuse, or anything else—judges deal with those issues too. We watch the news, follow politics, and are amazed at social trends and have opinions. We just have to be mindful that when we do our job we must, to the best of our ability, set those things aside to be impartial.

6 Interesting Things I Didn’t Know about Being a Judge

If you’re thinking about portraying a judge in your scenes, these are areas that are great to dig into to give your judge dimension.

1) You have to fight your instinct to get into the fight. When lawyers are embroiled in litigation, it reminds you that you became a lawyer because you love to engage in this verbal and strategic battle. When you become a judge, that season is over, and now you are just the referee.

Your job is to manage the chaos and make sure that the fight is fair. Sometimes you miss the fight and want to jump in. I often make the objections and arguments I think should be made—in my head, of course. I then rule on those objections. So far I have never been overruled.

2) A recess is a judge’s best friend. When a judge speaks, all eyes are on her. If there has been an emotional plea, a thorny issue, or something odd that came up, we have to process that information and make a ruling instantaneously. If a judge is not sure what to do, she takes a recess. If something strikes her as funny but the situation does not call for levity, she takes a recess. If she has consumed two lattes to stay awake during the boring testimony of an expert witness, she takes a recess. It’s the best tool in the judge’s repertoire.

3) Judges are fashion conscious. When I was appointed, several judges called to welcome me to the bench and provide valuable advice on what type of robe I should get. Who knew there were options? There were many opinions about the type of collar, the material, and the blouse of the sleeve. But the strongest opinion had to do with whether to snap or zip. As it turns out, snaps are best.

4) Most judges are very fond of the individuals on their staff. We are together for many hours a day and often develop a strong bond. My staff and I are so in sync that we communicate without words. My bailiff knows that if I get a certain look on my face, someone is likely to be taken into custody.

If the judge has to take a brief recess (see above), a member of the staff knows why. They see when the judge is upset, worried, or unsure. When the judge is in the back awaiting the “all rise,” the staff is in the courtroom. They are observing who is late, who is not getting along, and who is behaving badly.

The judge is usually very protective of her team, and the quickest way to get on a judge’s bad side is to be rude or disrespectful to a member of her staff.

5) No one really tells you what your first day will be like. I had seen judges come out hundreds of times, but I guess I never paid that much attention. My heart was beating the first time the bailiff gave the “all rise.” I came out and looked at all those eyes just waiting to see this wise new judge. I just stood there waiting for all those people to sit down. As they stood there looking at me and I stood there looking back at them, it became a little awkward, so I began to arrange my files waiting for the bailiff to announce that they could be seated. I looked to my bailiff to give the signal, and he nodded at me and I finally just sat down.

As it turns out, I have to sit down first before he can announce to everyone they may be seated. So when I call to congratulate new judges, in addition to advising them that snaps are the best, I remind them to sit down when they come out to the bench.

6) Sometimes judges have regrets. Judges take a lot of time thinking about tough decisions and judgments. We do the legal research, consult with other judges, but ultimately it is our decision, so there is much soul searching. Sometimes the right decision is not popular or will draw a very emotional response or a bad review in the newspaper.

Despite all these ancillary concerns, judges do the best they can to be fair and just. But because we are human, we are fallible. Judges make mistakes every day, and that is just a part of the job.

All in all, being a judge is a great job. Prior to being appointed to the bench, I spent more than fifteen years as a public defender representing the indigent in criminal cases. In my career as a public defender I handled thousands of cases, from loitering to homicides.

I learned that no matter how minor or how serious the case, there were people involved, and they were affected by what the judge did or said. I remember that when I’m on the bench, I’m dealing with people and not just a file. I try to remember that every person, no matter what the circumstances, usually just wants to be heard.

It is truly an honor to now serve in this capacity. I preside over criminal cases with lawyers that I once worked with and argued against. My transition to the bench has been relatively smooth even though I still sometimes long to get in the fight.

It’s still surreal when people stand when I enter a room and odd when someone I’ve known for years calls me Your Honor. But at the end of the day, I am mindful that I’m no different from anyone else. I just sit in the big chair.

S.V. Brown headshotHon. Shelyna V. Brown received her BA from UC Davis and her Juris Doctorate from Santa Clara University, School of Law.  Shelyna served as an attorney with the Santa Clara County Office of the Public Defender for nearly fifteen years before being appointed to the bench.  Judge Brown previously served as the supervising judge in Palo Alto, CA, and currently resides over criminal matters in San Jose, CA.  Judge Brown was one of the youngest members appointed to serve as a superior court judge in Santa Clara County.

Feature Photo Credit: shawncalhoun via Compfight cc

9 Responses to “A Behind-the-Scenes Peek at Sitting on the Bench”

  1. Dennis Kearney April 6, 2015 at 7:12 am #

    Your Honor: you present the picture of a hard-working, self-effacing, smart (and stylish!) jurist. Attorneys must be pleased to appear before you, especially young women. All that trial attorneys want is a fair shake and decisiveness, win or lose. The point you make is a good one: there is a person beneath the robe of office, who suffers and celebrates the same things as the rest of us. This is a good reminder to make sure judges in our stories are as complex as all of our characters.

  2. Nicholas C. Rossis April 6, 2015 at 8:21 am #

    What a wonderfully honest, down-to-earth post! Many thanks for sharing with us this behind-the-scenes peek 🙂

  3. Jim Steinberg, Writer April 6, 2015 at 8:35 am #

    Judge Brown,

    Thank you for showing writers how important it is to bring a touch of humanity to the judge in their courtroom scenes. Because the judge is often the least likely character to be the central figure in most fictional legal stories, it would be so easy to reduce her to a stereotype. But she can and should be a significant force even before the courtroom scenes. Writers can build tension by having the lawyers can talk about her with their clients prior to trial; they can describe not only her skills but her biases and tendencies; they can show her prior relationships with the attorneys themselves and the possible conflicts inherent in that; they can enliven the courtroom scenes with her personality and the way she deals with the lawyers’ and witnesses’ personalities and conduct; they can make her into a character to be remembered.

    I’m writing another story involving the law. Your reminders are very valuable to me in making sure that I take advantage of the possible ways that the judge can be a character who moves the story along and is indeed part of the story’s dramatic potential. I had not quite thought of that yet, but now I am.

    Thank you,
    Jim Steinberg

    • Shelyna V Brown April 6, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

      Jim, Thank you so much. I’m glad it was helpful. You are absolutely right. Lawyers always discuss with other lawyers and their clients, the competence, biases or quirks the judge may have. By the way, the judges do the same. This is a great area to explore. Happy writing!

  4. Christine Campbell April 6, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    Although living in Scotland where the judiciary system is different in many ways, I felt this post would be relevant here too. The things to consider would be the same in most countries, I should think. First and foremost, to remember the judge is a real live person, that, under that robe, there is a heart that beats and bleeds with the same feelings as anyone else.
    Very interesting and helpful post. Thank you.

  5. Garry Rodgers April 6, 2015 at 10:00 am #

    Thank you, Your Honor, for this candid and personal look at the human side of the judiciary. In my years of experience with lawyers and judges, especially knowing some folks as lawyers first who then became judges, I fully agree with your comments.

    Regarding legal fiction – the best screenwriting I’ve seen is from the movie ‘My Cousin Vinnie’ which is a comedy but really gets into the personal dynamics between the judge and the lawyers. I highly recommend all writers to watch this show as the character development and dialogue is outstanding.

    • Shelyna V Brown April 6, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

      I agree! My Cousin Vinnie is one of my favorite movies. It portrays one lawyers very rocky start as a lawyer and the interaction between the lawyers and the judge. As in life, all parties play their role in court but all have lives outside of the courtroom and that can affect what happens in court.

  6. Dona General April 7, 2015 at 8:52 am #

    I trained to be a lawyer. Loved every minute of it. Sat hours upon hours in courtrooms as an intern with private and civil attorneys, never with a judge.

    One question: What is your opinion concerning the selection of judges, pro elective office or pro appointment? It differs from state to state. In either case, in your opinion, how much does politics impact the quality of the choice?

    Most of the attorneys I observed and worked with had low opinions of judges. I didn’t ask, they volunteered the information. At the time, my favorite was the Appeals Court. As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

    • Shelyna V Brown April 8, 2015 at 11:10 am #

      You ask a great question. It is a question that has been a subject of great debate lately.
      With both appointment and election the judicial candidate is subject to vetting by the local bar. In either process the candidate can seek the endorsements from community and special interest groups such as local law enforcement. With the appointment process there is additional vetting through the governor’s office. This vetting allows the candidate’s colleagues and local judges an opportunity to weigh in on whether or not the candidate will make a good judicial officer. However, that process is done privately and not open to public input or criticism. With an election, the public is aware of the candidate but there is no further vetting unless there is an opponent in the race. Both of these avenues have strengths and weaknesses but I don’t believe either one is better than the other. Both processes bring to the bench competent and qualified judicial officers.

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