Sunday, July 7, 2013

Black Robe Disease

Black Robe Disease is a diagnosis sometimes rendered by attorneys, following their examination of a judge. When I was first appointed some years ago, I received a call from a good friend. First came the congratulations, then the warning, "do not succumb to black robe disease." There are many descriptions of this insidious infection. One website lists these as primary symptoms:

Inflated ego and an excessive sense of self-importance
Lack of empathy
Sudden outbursts of rage (whether genuine or exhibited for show)
Refusal to effectively manage scheduling issues
Belief in a double standard when it comes to the judge’s own conduct
Lack of patience with inexperienced lawyers
Hostility towards lawyers more knowledgeable than the judge
Inability to work efficiently
A compulsion to waste the time of others
Imperious attitude
The belief that his or her words are dogma
An obsessive desire to be kissed on the @#$%^&

There may be other lists or descriptions, but this one serves for the discussion I would like to have today. Three of these dovetail into the discussion today: lack of empathy, management of scheduling issues, and a double standard when it comes to the Judge's conduct. 

A lawyer recently told me in passing of a personal experience. Imagine a lawyer having plans, recurrently, to celebrate his only daughter's birthday each year. Imagine having made the commitment when she was born, and thereafter taking a vacation day on each of her special days. The attorney also described a friend who had  made a similar commitment to his wedding anniversary each year, and described yet another peer who never worked on her own birthday. 

Each of the examples reminded me what so many attorneys tell me, about seeking some life-balance. Many tell me that they make certain family and community commitments sacrosanct. I know many judges who arrange their schedule around the same kind of commitments. I applaud it on both sides of the bench. Family is important. Each kid has one 7th birthday, and while it may be similar to the 6th or the 8th, this one is the 7th. The same holds true for anniversaries, family events, your siblings weddings, family and friend's funerals, etc.

This life is stressful. Many, perhaps most, attorneys are "type-A" personalities. They are driven, committed, and I know so many who work so hard. I ran into one at a recent educational program, which was on a Saturday. He took time to chat, but then excused himself to "return to the office." Typical. My point is that while work is important, family is more important. I applaud judges and attorneys alike that make family plans and stick to them. Family is critical. Stress will be alleviated by attending that birthday party. Sure putting it on may cause stress, but a different kind of stress than preparing for a deposition. In the end, I can tell you from experience, the kids rarely remember the stress or the mistakes, but they do remember you being there. Like the TV commercial says, "you don't have to be perfect to be a great parent." 

This is where the empathy comes in. The conversation I had with that attorney, describing the recurrent commitments to family, was really about a judge who allegedly, steadfastly, refuses to accommodate attorney's family plans for these dates. This is allegedly true despite motions for continuance being (1) agreed, and (2) filed months in advance, and (3) accompanied by a (in my opinion) senseless volume of proof (certificates to prove the meaningfulness of some date).  If true, I can only pity the judge, even though I pity the attorney also.

The conversation reminded me of a funny movie from my youth, Ferris Beuller's Day Off. The hero of the movie (Ferris) has become incredibly adept at skipping high school. So much so, he has attracted the attention of the Principal, Mr. Rooney. Ferris thinks you must stop and smell the roses, he says "life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." He is right. I took last Friday off and spent it with my family. We worked around the house; I still enjoyed the time. Back to the movie. Having decided one day to skip, Ferris also assists his friend (Sloan) with escaping high school with a fake story about a death in Sloan's family.  Ferris is assisted in this by another friend, Cameron, who pretends to be Sloan's father and places a call to Principal Rooney, and a conversation ensues which includes Cameron, Ferris, Mr. Rooney and Mr. Rooney's secretary, Grace: 

Ed Rooney: Ed Rooney. 
Cameron: [disguising voice as George Peterson] Ed. This is George Peterson. 
Ed Rooney: How are you today, sir? 
Cameron: [voice disguised] Well, we've had a bit of bad luck this morning as you may have heard. 
Ed Rooney: Yeah I heard, and man, I'm all broken up, boy, what a blow. 
Cameron: [disguised] Yeah. Yeah. Well, uh, it's been a tough morning and we got a lot of family business to take care of, so if you wouldn't mind excusing Sloane, I'd appreciate it. 
Ed Rooney: Uh, yeah, sure, no I'd be happy to, yeah you, uh, you just produce a corpse, and uh, I'll release Sloane. I wanna see this dead grandmother first hand. (Emphasis added).
Grace: Ed? 
Ed Rooney: It's alright, Grace, it's Ferris Bueller the little twerp. I'm gonna set a trap and let him fall right in it. 
Grace: Ooh! 
Cameron: [disguised] I'm sorry, Ed, did you say you wanted to see a body? 
Ed Rooney: Yeah, that's right, just, uh, roll her old bones on over here, and I'll dig up your daughter. You know that's school policy. (Emphasis added).
Cameron: [disguised] Oh. 
Ed Rooney: Was this your mother? 
Cameron: [disguised] Uh, no my wife's mother. 
Grace: [picks up ringing phone] Ed Rooney's office. 
Ferris: Hi this is Ferris Bueller, can I speak to Mr. Rooney please? Thank you. 
Grace: [caught off-guard] Uh... hold. 
Ed Rooney: Tell ya what, dipshit. If you don't like my policies you can come on down here and smooch my big ole' white butt. 
Grace: ED! 
Ed Rooney: Pucker up butter-cup. 
[to Grace] 
Ed Rooney: What? 
Grace: Ferris Bueller's on line 2 (hearing this, the look on Principal Rooney's face changes and his shock is apparent).

In this instance, the decision-maker is tricked. Convinced he is speaking to Ferris, he makes statements that are simply unconscionable. Having learned Ferris is on the "other line," Mr. Rooney retreats and agrees to release Sloan from school for the day. We all cheer for Ferris (star of the movie after all), and he gets away with it. Mr. Rooney is right, but he comes across as absurd. Can you imagine a high school principal saying "you just produce a corpse?" Absurd. 

Is asking for certificates to prove important dates any less absurd? Perhaps if the continuance motion is filed the day or week before (I forget many things, but I do not forget my kid's birthdays) then one might be suspicious. When an attorney files an agreed motion, months in advance, immediately after receiving notice, and expressing a need to move a trial a few days to accommodate a family matter, how can one be suspicious of, or deny, that? More importantly, how can we as judges fault attorneys for making commitments to family? As important (empathy), I think most judges plan to accommodate such life events in their own families. Are attorney's special occasions not worthy of the same respect?

I would hope that they are. I would hope that sitting on this side of the bench does not cause us to forget what it is like on the other side. I would hope we would show people respect, empathize, and facilitate their participation in important family events and celebrations, even if it means moving a trial a few days down the calendar on an agreed motion. I would like to know what you think, email me,,

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