April 22, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Q: I was recently in Small Claims Court and have got to tell you that the judge really disappointed me. Even though I won the case against my former tenant, first of all the decision was mailed to me which took several days, and I thought the judge would lecture the defendant on the importance of telling the truth and being responsible. But he seemed totally unconcerned with obvious contradictions and lies. I expected Judge Judy, not Judge Wimpy! Am I wrong, or are most Small Claims Court judges afraid to speak up?
A: Real life isn’t a TV courtroom
Ever since the appearance of Judge Judy and The People’s Court type of television programs, I have frequently heard from readers with similar complaints. “It was an empty victory,” is the way one Eureka reader put it. “Case after case, no sense of moral outrage, no effort by the judge to point out obviously unethical and morally questionable behavior. A chance to send a strong message to the litigants and spectators was missed.”
Are there courtrooms where clones of Judge Judy preside? If they exist, I have never seen one, and for a lot of reasons, some valid, but many a symptom, in my opinion, of a justice system that far too often just doesn’t get it. (I will explain that statement a bit later.) Judge Judy — a former New York family law court judge — is a superb television entertainer, but she isn’t acting. She is free to say the things that many judges feel and think, because Judy does not have to worry about complaints from members of the public, or from unhappy voters who might toss her off the bench.
She is probably the only judge in America who is truly independent. I enjoy watching her show; she is my kind of judge, real courage, strong ethics, morality, and she can smell BS a mile away. Right and wrong matters to her, matters in the real world, and so often appears unimportant in too many of the courtrooms most of us visit. Judge Judy is a success because our legal system is seen by the public as failing miserably to deliver justice.
“Small Claims Court is that place in our legal system where emotions run as high as in family law, sometimes higher. When the public complains about judges, Small Claims tops the list. You’ve got people who are representing themselves in cases that might have been going on for a very long time, who often do not understand their rights or legal obligations. They want someone to blame, and that someone can be the judge. So, if you behave as a Judge Judy, it is an invitation to have a formal complaint filed against you, and no judge wants that,” states a now retired Superior Court judge who has read my column for years.
“Beav,” he said, “When you become a judge, a lot of relationships end. You are under a magnifying glass, both in and out of the courtroom, but it is what happens in the courtroom that can easily get you in trouble,” he said.
“Judges are normally appointed to office, but must run for election every six years. With 58 counties in California — some of them politically very active — if a judge wants to run unopposed (which most do) then you need to do a good job and not offend the public,” he points out.
Why decisions are mailed out
Unlike The People’s Court, or Judge Judy, the decisions of real judges are often mailed to the parties for a number of valid reasons, not necessarily because the judge is a wimp as my reader suggests. Some cases require research before a correct ruling can be made. This takes time. It is also true that many decisions could be announced from the bench but are not for another good reason: preventing violence.
There is a reason that an armed bailiff is in court. Some people cannot control their temper if the decision goes against them. An experienced judge usually can sense when it is safe to announce the decision, but some just play it safe and notify everyone by mail.
Sitting as a Judge Pro Tem, I learned this the hard way one afternoon when a mild-mannered grandma suddenly went berserk after I ruled that her hair stylist was not responsible for the loss of her hair following grandma’s fourth hair color change in three weeks. It was, to say the least, a “hair”-raising experience.
Do Small Claims Court Judges care?
“The times that I have just visited Small Claims Court, over the years, the impression is that too many judges lack concern and aren’t all that strong in terms of character,” Hanford reader Dwight Wilbur told me when I asked his opinion of the judges he has seen. “Is it me, or does right and wrong not matter to many of them?” he wonders.
Today’s lawyers are the judges of tomorrow. In many ways, we get the legal system we ask for and deserve. If the legal profession is asked and permitted to play fast and loose with right and wrong and basic morality, when those lawyers become judges, do not be surprised by the kind of justice they will dispense.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.