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.