Wow, Now That’s Class… NOT!

Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on April 14, 2008

When news of a fistfight between two lawyers (not their clients mind you, but the attorneys–the ones who had the discipline, foresight and maturity to knuckle down and earn not just a college degree, but also a law degree) was recently reported in the local news, I got to thinking about the role that the trial bench plays in establishing the level of professionalism in the local bar.  In the case noted above, the judge hearing the matter declined to hold either (or both) combatants in contempt of court for their conduct.  Moreover, the judge is apparently unwilling to report either attorney to the state bar disciplinary board. I can’t help but wonder if the judge would have opted to pursue the same "head in the sand" strategy if the fight had been between the two clients rather than the opposing attorneys.  If not, how can this judge’s choices be characterized as anything other than an enabling double standard?   

Weak judges beget poor performance by the attorneys who practice before them. From an animal law practitioner’s perspective, even more troubling is the fact that weak judges often fail to follow the law, look for corners to cut and seek ways to appease both sides of a case in an effort to avoid controversy or scrutiny from an appellate court.  For the creative professionals working within the justice system to improve the plight of a vulnerable class of beings, such a dynamic is just one more (unnecessary) hurdle to clear before the merits of the case are ever squarely addressed.  

Ironically, judicial elections tend to generate very little voter interest despite the fact that these men and women adorned in black robes wield an immense amount of power capable of impacting the lives of many an apathetic voter.  Perhaps even more significant, yet obscure, is the role each governor plays in all of this. Most trial judges first ascend to the bench via gubernatorial appointment and then are, later, formally elected into office as the incumbent.  This reality makes a governor’s judicial selection criteria a highly relevant aspect of his or her own campaign platform.  It is quite rare, however, for a candidate’s judicial selection methods to become a central issue in a gubernatorial race.  The point to this is simply to urge you to pay close attention to the selection of your trial judges and encourage the skilled attorneys in your community to take what often amounts to a substantial pay cut and give something back to their community by becoming a trial court judge.  The quality of the trial bench has a profound impact on our ability to advance the interests of our clients, the animals.

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