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What Makes A Judge A Good Judge?

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by Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace

With daily debate surrounding the newest nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, it is fair to ask, “What makes a judge a good judge?” Socrates once stated that a judge must listen courteously, answer wisely, consider soberly and decide impartially. Few would argue with those criteria, but what else is required?

Many would say that empathy is also a requirement for a judge. The problem is that judges are ethically prohibited from “ruling from the heart.” In my cases, it does not matter whether I like the tenant more than the landlord or a criminal defendant more than a particularly difficult victim. The law is the law and I do my best to apply it consistently.

On appellate courts, where more than one judge hears the same case, diversity is often cited as an objective. However, diversity is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Most of the current U.S. Supreme Court is composed of individuals with degrees from either Harvard or Yale. (Ironically, our last four presidents also have a degree from one of those universities.). While those are obviously excellent schools, perhaps someone who went to law school in the southwest could also add “diversity.”

One thing that clearly should not be a factor is the color of the judge’s skin. Unfortunately, race is being discussed even today.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor gave a lecture at Berkeley that was later published in the Spring 2002 issue of Berkley’s La Raza Law Journal. In that speech, she acknowledged that the initial critical “decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males.” Even so, she went on to state, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Her conclusion is, at best, problematic. It is certainly true that judges are not robots performing mathematical calculations. It is equally true that judges are human and are therefore affected by their background and by their life experiences. However, if a tenant fails to pay rent or if someone drives drunk, the result should be the same whether the judge is a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat. While that may not always be the case, under no circumstances should the outcome of a case be dependent on the color of the judge’s skin.

Judge Williams is the presiding justice of the peace for the Northwest Regional Court Center. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.

Posted by on June 19, 2009.

Categories: Judicial, Race Relations

24 Responses

  1. I teach constitutional history on the college level, so I’d just like to point out that of 110 U.S. Supreme Court justices over the past 220 years, all but four have been white males.

    The exceptions are two African-Americans (Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas) and two women (Sandra Day O’Connor and Ginsburg).

    Judge Sotomayor would be the third non-white and the third woman out of 111 justices since the founding of the republic.

    by Richard Grayson on Jun 19, 2009 at 8:40 am

  2. As an appellate judge, Judge Sotomayor has participated in 98 race-related cases.

    Of these, the court of appeals rejected the claim of discrimination roughly 80 times and agreed with it 10 times. (The remaining cases involved other kinds of claims or dispositions.)

    In the 10 cases in which the court of appeals favored claims of discrimination, nine resulted in unanimous rulings and seven involved at least one Republican-appointed judge. In the single time a judge dissented from a ruling in which Judge Sotomayor participated, the dissent was over a technical question, not race discrimination.

    In total, Judge Sotomayor has disagreed with her colleagues in race-related decisions only five times in 11 years. In that entire time, Judge Sotomayor has only twice dissented from a ruling on a substantive question of race discrimination.

    In her opinions regarding civil rights laws, Judge Sotomayor has written about principles of restraint. She has stressed that “the duty of a judge is to follow the law,” so that judges have no power “to disregard the plain language of any statute or to invent exceptions to the statutes” created by Congress.

    That principle seems to run consistently through her rulings on race-related cases. Dissenting from a decision to permit the New York Police Department to fire an employee for sending racist hate mail, she wrote, “To be sure, I find the speech in this case patently offensive, hateful and insulting.” But, she added, “while we are more comfortable when the speech we are protecting involves protestations against racial discrimination, it is not our role to approve or disapprove of the viewpoint advanced.”

    In rejecting the discrimination claims of black passengers against an airline based on an international treaty limiting suits against carriers, she rejected the plaintiffs’ assertion that “we should nonetheless carve out an exception for civil rights actions as a matter of policy” in light of “the specter that our decision will open the doors to blatant discrimination aboard international flights.”

    That is not to say that Judge Sotomayor is inattentive to questions of racial discrimination. In Gant v. Wallingford Board of Education, for example, she dissented from the majority’s ruling that a school’s favorable treatment of white students could not prove that a young black student who was demoted to a lower grade was the victim of discrimination. In Hayden v. Pataki, she concluded that felon disenfranchisement laws are discriminatory and violate the Voting Rights Act.

    Her decisions in these cases would hardly make her an extremist. The now notorious Ricci v. DeStefano was a genuinely tough call. Yes, the firefighter plaintiffs had a serious claim that they suffered discrimination when the city refused to apply a promotion test they passed. But the city argued that it feared a lawsuit by minority firefighters alleging that the city’s promotion tests unintentionally discriminated against blacks and Hispanics. A ruling in the city’s favor was not necessarily ideological.

    The public debate ought to be about what the law should command in these kinds of difficult cases. Unsubstantiated charges of racism distract us from these questions and demean our justice system.

    by Richard Grayson on Jun 19, 2009 at 9:51 am

  3. The issues that Judge William’s brings up are quite interesting and in this forum, a little worrisome. Although, I think the argument ain’t bad overall.

    A few things I would open the discussion with. First, the issue of empathy is very much an important part of being a judge. Empathy is not using your own opinion to lean haphazardly to one side or the other (although, I bet many here do believe that a conservative judge with conservative opionions would be better than a liberal one…attitudes matter dont they?). Empathy helps a judge think about the ramifications of a decisions, especially in tough calls. It helps them maybe rule or sentence a bit more creatively. There is nothing wrong with a judge thinking about what that ruling might do to the family of the victim, or that of the offender, and there certainly is room for different persprectives when judges must grapple with decisions.

    Sotomayor, in her speeches, only raised the question of having a different voice, from a different background at the table. THAT matters. Wouldn’t some of you think that having a person on a committee with a Christian background make some difference in arguing over questions of policy, morality, and the like. I do. With Sotomayor, as Grayson says well, you get someone who can understand what growing up Latina in NYC meant, what poverty is really like, the differences between the experiences of men and women, and the like.

    Frankly, when she said that a Latina woman mmight rule better than a white man in questions of discrimination, she meant that. She didn’t mean that white men just don’t get it, but she did mean that they might have to rule with empapthy (putting themselves in the shoes of others) or even learn a bit about what is like to be discriminated against as a means of decifering what a ruling might be like or not.

    Last, a perfect example of this occurred on the strip search case where some of the men in the Sumpreme Court argued that strip searching a teenage girl was no big thing and wouldn’t harm her. Well, the lone woman on the court spoke up with some additional knowledge. She basiscally said you don’t know what you are talking about and that the man had no basis to make that claim because he did not know that and never experienced the nature of a 13 year old girl who would have been humiliated and railed on by her friends. His argument was not a “legal one”, her persepective mattered and brought something to that discussion…and the little girl and her family lost anyway.

    by kralmajales on Jun 19, 2009 at 10:31 am

  4. It is clear to me that Judge Gerald A. Williams has not bothered to read Sotomayor’s speech and I would encourage him to do so since it will become rather clear what she was saying is not at all what the judge claims.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/us/politics/15judge.text.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

    by todd on Jun 19, 2009 at 11:13 am

  5. Todd,

    Actually, I did read all of her speech prior to writing my column. Thank you for posting the link to it so that others may read her complete comments as well.

    Gerald Williams

    by Gerald Williams on Jun 19, 2009 at 6:09 pm

  6. Judge Williams,

    If you read the speech, than I can’t imagine how you come to the conclusion you do about what she was saying. What she is clearly pointing out is that the judiciary is largely male and white but things have been improving in it being more representative of the population as a whole. She states that one’s ethnicity does not mean one speaks in a voice of that ethnicity. Continuing she talks about how the inclusion of more women on the bench has in fact changed the way rulings in certain areas such as employment discrimination or custody cases because prior to women being on the bench their was a blindness to certain experiences. She also says that one should aspire to be impartial but this is an aspiration since we are defined and shaped by our backgrounds and experiences.

    One would think if someone looks at any of the appeals courts or Supreme Court one is struck by the fact that a not insignificant portion of rulings are not unanimous but judges differ on their rulings. One would think it is almost self-evident that the reason for this is in part because judges have different backgrounds and experiences which affect how they think about these issues. If this is true and we want to make sure our legal system is functioning in the best way it could then it would clearly behoove us to attempt to have a diverse judiciary.

    Clearly a reason for her explaining this is because as an appellate court judge the cases are not simply about whether someone has driven drunk or paid the rent but are about fundamental questions of the meaning of the law or how the law should be applied.

    As RIchard Grayson states about of the 110 Supreme Court Justices in the nation’s history all but three have been white males. Do you truly think that their opinions have not been affect by their ethnicity and gender? I would find that an incredibly difficult argument to make. Also as Richard explains, painting Sotomayor as someone who advocates ruling based on her ethnicity seems even more hard to understand considering there is no evidence of this in her judicial record.

    As you point out she does rightly note that some of the landmark opinions about gender or racial equality were handed down by all white Supreme Courts. This is true, but only after enough debate in civil society among white males about the issue had occurred. Yes, Brown v. Board of Education was handed down by an all white court, but if there had been an African-American on the court who could have, along with Justice Harlan, argued why Plessy could not be kept “separate but equal” there would have been no reason for the Brown decision at all.

    by todd on Jun 19, 2009 at 9:20 pm

  7. JP Williams, it is your conclusion that is problematic. I’m sorry you are in your position. You actively seek to nullify the law with your columns coaching people who may actually appear before you on how to avoid the penalties of the law.

    Now you take a scornful tone towards a judge whose robes you don’t deserve to carry.

    Shameful!

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 21, 2009 at 1:25 am

  8. In this week’s National Review, in an article called “Judge from Experience,” there is an article that offers the following view of Sotomayor’s speech at Berkley:

    Sotomayor pointedly rejected the idea “that judges must transcend their personal sympathies and prejudices and aspire to achieve a greater degree of fairness and integrity based on the reason of law,” calling that a mere “aspiration” that is not achievable “in most cases.” Everything is relative, she argued, quoting a Yale Law classmate’s declaration that “there is no objective stance, but only a series of perspectives.”

    In forming those perspectives, she maintained, “women or men of color” have “basic differences in logic and reasoning.” Necessarily, this “will make a difference in the process of judging” as more people of color assume more influential roles on the federal bench. “What the difference will be in my judging,” Sotomayor claimed she could not say. But she was certain that “there will be some, based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

    Sotomayor’s obsession with racial and ethnic identity politics was not taken out of context. It was the context.

    by Elizabeth on Jun 21, 2009 at 11:32 am

  9. Elizabeth, referencing someone else repeating a discredited assertion doesn’t rehabilitate the assertion.

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 21, 2009 at 2:32 pm

  10. Elizabeth, please also read the text of the speech I posted. BTW, all aspirations are things we hope to move towards achieving even if we never do.

    Also, since here speech was given at a symposium about Latino/as in the judiciary, she might be excused for making the central focus of her speech.

    Lastly, as others have pointed out, Sotomayor is not even very liberal and this talk about her being a radical leftist is beyond silly.

    by todd on Jun 21, 2009 at 6:41 pm

  11. On Todd’s point, there are studies coming to light right now that show conclusively that Judge Sotomayor is no liberal. For instance in appeal of non-citizens challenging immigration status, she ruled more than 80% of the time, for the government, and against the immigrant. In fact, she did some at a slightly higher rate than her colleagues on the same court did.

    Another study out of the University of Texas law schoo by Stephanie Lindquist, also shows that she is far from what liberals would really love to have on the Court.

    Is she conservative, well, no. Is she a leftist, well hell no.

    by kralmajales on Jun 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm

  12. Is anyone else concerned that a JP is publishing how-to advice on how to get out of tickets? JP Keegan has taken to tossing photo-radar tickets and bragging about it. Isn’t this a form of nullification? Doesn’t that make Keegan an “activist?”

    And now JP Williams is writing and publishing advice on how to circumvent the law. That’s more troubling to me then his rehash of a false meme.

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 22, 2009 at 12:54 pm

  13. All EXTREMELY good points Kenny…and VERY inappropriate for a judge who is expected to follow the law. Talk about being a bit hypocritcal!

    by kralmajales on Jun 22, 2009 at 2:32 pm

  14. George Will noted the following:

    Her ethnicity aside, Sotomayor is a conventional choice. The court will remain composed entirely of former appellate court judges. And like conventional liberals, she embraces identity politics, including the idea of categorical representation: A person is what his or her race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference is, and members of a particular category can be represented — understood, empathized with — only by persons of the same identity.

    On the photo radar tickets:

    Judge Williams has found several people not responsible in civil traffic hearings for going 66 or 67 in what they thought was a 65 zone because the 55 mph sign was not until after the camera. That’s not a failure to follow the law. It’s called due process.

    The temporary construction zone has moved and the camera has been re-set. If you want to see if you will be held responsible, feel free to go by the camera at 35th Ave and the 101 at 76 mph and see what happens.

    by Elizabeth on Jun 22, 2009 at 5:37 pm

  15. Elizabeth, noted. The Will piece is a major “walking back” of the Sotomayor meme. Does this mean you now disagree with the attacks on her or do you believe if you find something with different words it magically supports your discredited attack?

    Your note about Judge Williams is interesting and entirely off the point of my observation. In baseball terms you have shared with us a “swing and a miss.”

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 22, 2009 at 8:06 pm

  16. Kenny Jacobs,

    Your only responses are personal attacks on me, which leads me to believe that you have no actual support for your positions. I didn’t make up the National Review analysis I referenced and it is based on the actual language of Sotomayor’s speech. The words in quotes are what she actually said. How do you explain them?

    Simply calling an analysis discredited and then following up will a silly sports analogy are hardly examples of persuasive debate. If you think I’m wrong, then have the courage to attack my position, rather than just attempting to call me names or stating unsupported conclusions.

    by Elizabeth on Jun 23, 2009 at 7:55 am

  17. Elizabeth, my attacks on you are on this point; Judge Sotamayor spoke about NOT using race/ethnicity in the job of Judge. You go out and find “analysis” that is contrary to the facts of the speech, but finding a third inaccurate article doesn’t make the first one true.

    Let me put it this way, your “analysis” would be like a judge hearing evidence in a case but pretending it meant something she already believed. You are engaging in the very behavior you have charged Judge Sotomayor.

    Elizabeth, when you get called out for being wrong it’s not personal, no matter how poorly you handle criticism. Why do you insist on the special right to parade opinion as fact?

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

  18. Kenny Jacobs,

    Perhaps you should take a logic class or something. I would not want to defend Sotomayor’s words either so I guess I can’t blame you for shifting the focus to something else.

    Here is her quote again, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

    Go ahead. Try to defend that statement and try to picture the reaction if a while male had said he would reach a better conclusion than a Hispanic female.

    by Elizabeth on Jun 23, 2009 at 5:20 pm

  19. This isn’t a cause for logic Elizabeth, just reading. I’ll let Justice-select Sotomayor answer you:

    “Each day on the bench I learn something new about the judicial process and about being a professional Latina woman in a world that sometimes looks at me with suspicion. I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires. I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate.”

    But you would have known that if you actually read the speech. I know that you have strongly held opinions and you believe logic is the process of walking back from your opinion to cherry pick information to support that opinion. That is not logic and you are still wrong.

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 24, 2009 at 3:39 pm

  20. Kenny Jacobs,

    You chose not accept my challenge to defend her statement that wise Latinas make better judicial decisions than white men. Instead, you picked some different words (out of context) from the speech you claim I didn’t read. How brave of you.

    Clearly, her statement cannot be defended because you didn’t even try to do so and decided to attempt to change the topic instead. You are both wrong and an intellectual coward. Do you work for NBC?

    by Elizabeth on Jun 26, 2009 at 1:21 pm

  21. Elizabeth, the quote you provided and pin your entire opinion on is in a tense indicating what Judge Sotomayor would wish for or would hope to be true. The quote I provided (and is representative of her theme for the speech) is in a tense that shows what is and what must be.

    I understand how desperate you are to have your opinions (or what you are told to have as your opinion) vindicated. Anyone who has followed this tiresome thread is also aware of your desperation as you attempt to torture out a single sentence from a speech into an excuse to be irrelevant.

    But here’s the rub; the person you think is too “latina” to be a Supreme Court Justice understands the English language better then you, and writes better than both of us.

    by Kenny Jacobs on Jun 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm

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  24. Judge Williams in a corrupt hatemonger who knowingly allows people he likes to commit perjury in his courtroom.
    He has intentionally allowed his courtroom to be used as a springboard to inflame anti-Semitic hate.
    Go to TimesofIsrael.com and read A Gay Jewish Man Learns that Hate Can Come From the Most Unexpected Places and read about what Judge Gerald Williams really stands for, and what really goes on in his chambers.

    by Me on Jan 3, 2013 at 8:42 am

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