Tuesday, October 01, 2013

In Praise of Miserable Judges

Senior United States District Judge (D. Neb.) Richard Kopf talks about what it means to be a judge in today's criminal law environment:
The best way to think about it [becoming a federal judge] is to ask yourself this question: “Am I a willing judicial executioner, a person who consciously does great harm to other human beings by faithfully executing the extraordinarily harsh national criminal laws?” Those who covet a federal trial judgeship should think hard about this truth before pursuing the job.

I doubt they will. Instead, they will say to themselves, “I’m different. I am not weak. I am strong-minded.” Or, “I’m just doing what the law requires.” Or, “They did it to themselves. They deserve it.” Or, “Someone has to do it, and maybe I can improve things.” The rationalizations are endless.

But stripped of the BS that allows good people to do bad things, here is the essential truth: When sentencing people, federal trial judges literally and consciously destroy lives and most do so on a daily basis. So, I have a bit of advice for those who wish to replace Judge Bataillon. Be careful what you ask for. You have no idea what the hell you’re getting into.
Will Baude and I had the exact same instinct, which was that this sounds a lot like Robert Cover's famous declaration that "judges deal pain and death." I doubt Judge Kopf, a Reagan appointee, has typically been mistaken for Professor Cover, which makes this all the more striking.

Judge Kopf's sense is one I shared when I was clerking. For the most part during my clerkship, I did not feel like I was "doing justice" in any real sense, particularly in criminal law. This was not a knock on my judge or co-clerks, or anybody else on the Eighth Circuit. But doing law the way law is done, I felt like I was ruining far more lives than I was validating. At many times, it felt to me like I was making the world a worse place. It was not a good feeling.

On the other hand, I also cringe at Judge Kopf's suggestion that candidates for judgeships "think hard" about the truth of federal sentencing. Not because I oppose hard thought, but because however hard it is to be a judge who is miserable in her role as a "judicial executioner," I think it would be far worse if the only judges we had are those who ask themselves if they're willing to take on that role, and answer with a hearty "hell yeah, I am!"

1 comment:

EW said...

I clerked for a federal district judge within the 8th Cir. Our district hosted a federal prison, so we were swamped with pro se habeas corpus claims. While case law directed us to construe the pleadings of pro se litigants leniently, we simply lacked the staff to do so. So the game was to promptly find some technical basis to reject the filing, and the draft a rejection. I would occasionally pass along a pleading that I thought might warrant more attention – but I included a draft decision rejecting it as well. As far as I can recall during my time at the court, no pro se habeas corpus claims were granted.

The courts other chief activity was to listen to defendants – typically black men – plead guilty to drug crimes. As I recall, it would take half a day for each defendant to complete his plea and waive his rights.

I did not leave my clerkship with any desire to become a federal district court judge.