Friday, April 9, 2010


I attended a seminar yesterday on trial evidence. The instructors were Professor Thomas Mauet and retired Illinois Appellate Justice, Warren Wolfson. Professor Mauet is very well known in litigation circles. In fact, he authored my law school trial advocacy textbook. Come to think of it, he also authored my lawyering skills textbook as well.

Mauet and Justice Wolfson have co-authored a book on trial evidence, the subject of yesterday's seminar. Justice Wolfson was a very well known Chicago criminal defense attorney before being appointed a judge. He presided over tort cases for a long time at the Daley Center before being appointed to the Appellate Court.

At the seminar yesterday I heard a number of horror stories about judges. And most of these stories came from Justice Wolfson. I was told of judges that didn't know the law and were mean (among other things).

I think most of these stories involved Federal judges. For those of you that don't know, Federal judges are appointed by the U.S. President. And the appointment is for life. If that isn't job security, I don't know what is. Granted the appointments have to be approved by congress, but once they are in, they are in for good.

What this means is they don't have to be nice to anyone. After all, they don't have to run for election or hope to be reappointed by the state supreme court. But, state judges do.

I feel pretty fortunate to have the city of Chicago judges. Some have their quirks, but most of them are very pleasant, fair, and know the law. There are only 2 judges I try to get cases away from if assigned, and even then it depends on the case.

Before a trial last December, the judge said to myself and the prosecutors "you guys run the trial, I just sit back and call balls and strikes." I like that.

A lot of the city judges are former prosecutors. A very few are former defense attorneys. But I haven't seen too much favoritism. I think some of the younger judges give the police too much deference. But there is balance.

Though the law is the law, each courtroom is different. A winning motion to suppress in one courtroom might be  a dead loser in a different courtroom. But as far as applying procedural rules and day to day fairness, I think they are about all the same.

But these Chicago judges are part of the same over-crowded, under-staffed criminal justice system as myself. And everyone in the system understands what we do. There is almost an unspoken bond between the judges, prosecutors, clerks, sheriffs, and defense attorneys. We may all have different jobs and functions, but we all chew the same dirt. Day after day.

The city of Chicago is about as blue collar as there is. And most of the city judges seem to be wired the same way. They don't appreciate high rhetoric or attorneys that wear gators. They want attorneys to be prepared for court. And they want attorneys to actually show up. Demanding little buggars these judges are.

In all seriousness, be prepared for court. Be respectful in the courtroom to everyone. When in front of the judge, keep it as short as possible. And don't whine or bicker.

I have gotten a lot of mileage from judges by telling them I didn't know something as opposed to trying to make something up. We lawyers aren't supposed to know everything. Just where to look it up. Judges look stuff up to. They have some of the same books in chambers that are on my shelves at home.

Whenever I have gotten into a situation in court where something was going down that was unfamiliar to me, I haven't hesitated to call a time out. "Your honor, can we please discuss this with more depth?" Are they going to say no? Not my judges. Though this system is flooded with cases and defendants, all of the judges go out of their way to make sure everyone in the field knows the rules, the score and pitch count.

Early last year I introduced myself to a judge and asked him if he had any special ground rules for his courtroom. I had just had 2 cases assigned to his courtroom back to back. I thought an introduction was in order. But I also wanted to know how to stay off his bad side.

The thing I remember most about his instructions is that it was important to get along with the State. I took that advice and applied it to every courtroom.

At my last trial, I ran into the judge outside of the courtroom while the jury was deliberating. I asked him how I had done. This judge is one of the few former defense attorneys that now sit. And city of Chicago trial judges see a lot of trial attorneys. Who better to get a performance opinion from? "With this case, you have done a really good job" I was told. That comment provided a thin shield against the stun of the guilty verdict that came an hour later. But I will never forget it, nor the man that said it.

I have yet to get really reprimanded by a judge. Oh I got hollered at once by another judge for shuffling papers and making too much noise. But my grandmother used to yell at me for not sitting still. Kind of the same thing. And this judge calls me by my first name, so it didn't feel like I was really getting yelled at. It felt like a grandparent barking at me.

Because of that feeling, being in court is often as comfortable as being home. Other times, however, it's completely terrifying and makes my palms wet. I still get nervous. I think I always will.

I have played guitar in bands. I have played in front of a couple thousand people. I have also played in front of a few. No matter the size of the stage or the crowd, I always got nervous. Court is the same.

Court might be more intense. In a band, I was 1 of 4 on the stage. And if I missed a note, no one would likely hear it. I would know, but no one else. Court, on the other hand, is more personal. When I am speaking, it's just me. And if I say something stupid, everyone is going to know. There is no hiding.

And if I really blow it in court, it might cost someone years of their life. The stakes are much higher. I was never a professional musician per se, but I am supposed to be a professional attorney.

To cure my pre-gig butterflies, I used to drink a little vodka with some orange juice. I only needed one good drink to slow things down and allow me to relax. I would have never dreamed of being drunk on stage. I have too much pride.

What do I drink before court? Coffee. And lots of it. It's not spiked either. Unless you count Splenda and flavored creamer. You would think this would just make me even jittier. I am not sure that it really does. The caffeine mixed with adrenaline is quite the one-two punch.

There's something to be said for knowing you're alive.


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