Judicial Bias

I know judges are supposed to be unbiased, but we all know that’s impossible. The trick to successful judging is to pretend you’re not biased.

So I was surprised to find this statement by a trial judge quoted in a Connecticut Court of Appeals ruling last week: ‘‘I don’t think it was because I had a misapprehension of facts. I think it was because I took what facts were presented and applied my prejudices, and every judge has — has life history, and life experience that comes out, perhaps, in the way that we rule on certain things. And you happened to have hit a nerve on this one.’’

Clearly, that was way too honest and the appeals court reacted accordingly.

At this point, if you haven’t read the ruling, you’re probably wondering what brought on this burst of judicial candor. What vital emotional issue could hit a judge’s nerve so hard that she forgets she’s on the record?

The answer is: golf. Years of frustration, attempting to place a small ball in a small hole, may have taken their toll on this poor judge. She apparently based a ruling giving a $70,000 country club initiation fee to the wife in a divorce case partly because of “the subordinate role to which women are relegated in country clubs” — even though the judge didn’t think the wife played golf.

But the judge played golf and she was mad about the way she was treated.

I recommend reading the rather lengthy footnote 10 in this case that quotes a hearing transcript. My favorite line: ‘‘The Court: Don’t care what her golf history is, it’s what her future is going to be.”

Imagine being required to play golf as the price for a divorce. I’m surprised both sides didn’t appeal.

But ordering ex-spouses to do things their former mates like is an interesting family law concept. It develops empathy and an incentive to keep the family together — if only to avoid having to go bowling or shopping or some other dreadful activity.

We should see more uncontested divorces if judges start doing this.

More judging. In other recent biased judiciary news, a judge in Texas has been oddly disciplined for using a daily catch phrase to begin court sessions: “This is a redneck court.”

His penalty: four hours of education.

I don’t know about you, but I think being told not to open trials with racist-sounding statements shouldn’t take all that long. A minute or two ought to do the trick. What more can you say in the remaining three hours and 59 minutes?

The education is supposed to be “in the areas of racial sensitivity and avoiding creating an appearance of bias while conducting judicial duties.” Appearances, after all, are what really count. I could be wrong but I’m guessing that actual racism can’t be eradicated in a four-hour class.

It may well be, though, that this judge isn’t really racist. He may have thought announcing the color of his neck was a good thing. So I recommend that the four hours be put to use brainstorming alternative opening catch phrases.

My suggestion: “Good morning.”

Very random fact. One of the joys of reading appellate opinions is discovering fascinating facts that, for some reason, judges want to share with us. This one appeared in a Florida Court of Appeals ruling last week:

“It has been said that President James Garfield described the ideal college as ‘Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.’ This epigram identifies the heart of a university as the student-professor relationship.”

That log sounds really uncomfortable, but I suppose the point is that no one is liable to fall asleep like that. And the one student per professor ratio does seem pretty ideal.

This is why you seek wisdom from the sayings of James Garfield.

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