Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Perspectives on Being a Judge

Julius Young is an attorney and blogger out in California, he writes Workers' Comp Zone. He recently wrote about judging and his blog came to my attention. 

His post began with an acquaintance asking him "would you like to be a California workers' compensation judge?" Mr. Young said no, and then describes some thoughts that were generated as a result of the encounter. 

He sees several detriments to being a judge. He bases his conclusions on his experience as a litigator and from having served as a "pro tem judge, filling in when the board is short of judges." We do not have that in Florida. Our statute does allow the Governor to appoint a temporary JCC. It has happened, but it has been a long time. 

The last time I recall was Judge Dodson in Miami and that was about ten years ago. So many may be able to commiserate and try to imagine the stresses and challenges of doing this job, but in Florida it is a relatively small group who are judges or have been. I respect Mr. Young's perspective, and that he would not want the job. Different perspectives are what makes the world go around. However, I don't know a single judge who does not think it is the best job they have ever had. I had one tell me once that he loved it so much he would do it free. 

Mr. Young notes that taking the bench often involves a pay cut. He notes that the California "system "no longer trusts them (judges) to hemp make sound medical decisions." He notes that judges are "tied down," "pinned to a chair in a crowded, windowless room."  He notes that they spend "a significant amount of their day in the courtroom," and that their "surroundings are usually rather Spartan." He seems to lament the disappearance of paper, noting that "the judge is largely dealing with a case that is in the ether." Mr. Young notes his admiration for those who do the job, but concludes that he "couldn't do it full time."

I ponder Mr. Young's perspective. As a practitioner, he has certain perceptions of the judges' job. He has the advantage of service "pro tem," which adds to his foundation of knowledge. He concedes though that this did not afford him the opportunity to "actually conduct trials." From my perspective, there are few things as interesting as presiding over a trial, mulling the various perspectives on evidence, and drafting a decision of the claims and defenses. It is probably the most challenging and rewarding part of the job

He concedes some attractions to the job. He says "there may be intellectual rewards for some judges, but it can be quite abstract, as the judge helps move the pieces round the chessboard." I thought of this yesterday as I sat in the Capitol and interviewed candidates to replace Judge Spangler in Ft. Myers. There were also reappointment interviews for some sitting judges. 

Several discussed the intellectual challenges of Florida workers' compensation. There are some instances when this statute of ours presents some very interesting and complex questions for determination. I have never seen it, or those involved in it, or the processes of it, as pieces on a chessboard. Rather, it is a process for people to achieve resolution of their disagreements, either through their agreements or adjudication. 

I look around the Florida bench periodically. I have said before that I believe we have the strongest bench today that Florida workers' compensation has ever had. It is a diverse group or people with some interesting backgrounds and experiences. Certainly imperfect, each of us in her or his own way, but that is true for all humans. 

There are perceptions. We may think as lawyers that we understand the job that physicians do. Having never cut open a body, is it possible that academically I understand the surgeon, but that I simply cannot truly commiserate? Is it possible for people to understand disability, having never suffered it? Is it possible to confidently manage a case if we have never litigated one?  Perhaps not, but if our sincere goal is to try our best that may be good enough?

The simple fact is that we are all imperfect. In some manner there is deficiency in our backgrounds, our educations, our experiences. There is no perfect judge, mediator, attorney, doctor, therapist, etc. We all have perspectives and try to commiserate with the experiences and challenges of others. We will all try to do our best in these contexts, but in the end we will all still be imperfect. 

The judges, just like you, tend to get focused on the job. Anyone can become so focused on the particular row that is being plowed that day, that we might ignore the bigger field, or the next task. I recently spoke at a conference and a conversation about workers' comp challenges in the Tennessee and Oklahoma systems resulted in surprised responses from some judges. Those challenges are academically interesting to our system, but that big picture was not something these individual judges had time to ponder. Each was engaged instead in the challenges of those cases, workers and employers before them.

It is worth remembering that at its root, this system should be focused on the injured worker and the employer that needs the worker back. We need to provide a system that facilitates closure of claims for these two, either through mediation or adjudication. It is praiseworthy that judges keep their focus on those parties and their issues.

As a side note, Mr. Young notes in his context of "Spartan" surroundings" that "no California district office of the WCAB has WiFi." At least at the Florida OJCC you have full WiFi access. I hope that you do not find our accommodations "Spartan," and if you do please let me know how we can make the public more comfortable in our offices. The OJCC exists to serve you. I remind myself of that constantly. It is my hope that when you call or visit our offices that you feel valued in that manner. 

The injured worker, the employer, the insurance adjusters, the witnesses, the attorneys, and others who call and visit our offices are the purpose of our existence. These are not interruptions of our workday, they are the purpose of our workday. We are here because of them and for them. 

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