For many of my blog posts, I have embraced the concept that legal realism is more appropriate of a method for judges to use in the courtroom. To me, the formalist view seems a bit unattainable: the concept that a judge may craft a decision without any deference to his or her own personal and ideological beliefs is more a legal fantasy than reality. However, I never fully grasped how potentially dangerous the legal realist approach can be in the hand of an inadequately trained, inexperienced judge. My reflection this week centers on the dangers of an inexperienced judge, and to propose that more funding is necessary to further educate judges and ensure that our judicial system’s integrity is not compromised.
I embrace the legal realist’s view to judicial decision making; the view that law derives from the complex interaction of legal ideals with social considerations and even the personal desires of the judges themselves. I do not feel that the judicial system is manipulated by the so called legal-elite, yet I also don’t believe that the judiciary creates decisions by a mechanical process with no deference to personal feelings or thoughts on how the law should be applied due to ideology. At its core, the judiciary is dispute resolvers. A result that does not conform to the strict letter of the law makes people doubt the efficiency of the law, yet a result that is not fair makes people doubt the use of courts for dispute resolution in the first place. These competing concepts would be a chore for me to balance even straight out of law school, due to my obvious inexperience at being a judge. However, this week highlights the various inefficiencies of New York’s small town rural “justice courts.” The justice courts highlight a major flaw in most lower level courts: lack of funding and lack of experienced judges.
The first article I shall reflect on, Broken Bench: Small-Town Justice, With Trial and Error, shows how a lack of funding for the judiciary can not only create unfair results in cases, but also how a lack of adequate legal education for a judge can permeate the judiciary as a whole. The article highlights the inefficiencies of a Justice and his lack of legal education. But the article also highlights what I believe to be the bigger picture, a lack of monetary resources. The judge’s work experience outside of law is that of a bricklayer and a former dog trainer, with only a high school education. The lack of any law experience is astounding to me. Court is held once a week in a volunteer firehouse, and does not have a judge’s bench. On the day the article writer observed court, a state trooper, there as chief witness against the teenager, doubled as the court security officer. See William Glaberson, Broken Bench: Small-Town Justice, With Trial and Error, New York Times, September 26, 2006.
With no real courtroom and the fact that a witness had to serve as a court security officer is disturbing enough, the judge’s training to receive the judicial position consisted of an election for a job nobody wanted and six days of classes. In contrast, six classes into law school, I was still perfecting my brief writing and failing miserably at adjusting to the Socratic method. A twelve-hour refresher course, once a year, hardly is long enough to keep a judge up to date on changes in law, let alone reinforce bedrock principles of judicial ethics.
Furthermore, the fact that the judge had basically no legal education underscores another funding problem. In an economy where legal jobs have been sparse, one would think that there would be many educated, unemployed young lawyers who would jump at the chance to be a judge, where the only obstacle to employment is an uncontested election with little publicity. However, a judicial salary of $3,750 a year can hardly be considered an appealing position. I understand that budgets are tightening, but paying a judge what equates to $312.50 a month could barely cover a months rent in a low income area. Making $3,750 and having absolutely no other(not even food) expenses, it would take me over forty years to pay back my legal education.
The Conley article stated that “under the pressure of face-to-face interaction with the litigants, without the luxury of reflection, even legally trained judges revert to ordinary behavioral processes.” John M. Conley, William M., Fundamentals of Jurisprudence: An Ethnography of Judicial Decision Making in Informal Courts, 66 N.C. L. Rev. 467, 481 (1988). As a legal realist, I enjoyed how the Conley article stressed the differences in human behavior in analyzing how a small claims court judge reaches a conclusion. However, the law is much more than a result; it embraces our concepts of life, liberty, property, and what procedure is necessary before a party can infringe on those constitutionally protected interests. When a party comes to have his or her day in court, the last thing on their mind is “does my judge know what he’s doing?” With $3,750, the New York judge couldn’t even afford to buy the collection of used law books sitting on my bookshelf.