Thursday, January 07, 2010

Introduction (2) On judges

It is not unusual for a lawyer whose case on appeal is rejected to think that the judges have twisted the facts to suit that result. Montaigne, although not talking specifically about judges, suggested this sort of twisting is a product of intelligence:

"Men of intelligence notice more things and view them more carefully, but they comment on them; and to establish and substantiate their interpretation, they cannot refrain from altering the facts a little. They never present things just as they are but twist and disguise them to conform to the point of view from which they have seen them; and to gain credence for their opinion and make it attractive, they do not mind adding something of their own, or extending and amplifying."

Montaigne, "On Cannibals", Essays Book One Chapter 31, above p 108.

The style that Montaigne thought appropriate for advocates compliments this judicial twisting of the facts. It gives the judge as much as possible to work with. It is the style he attributed to Cicero: long drawn-out preliminaries including preambles, definitions, classifications and etymologies, time-wasting dissections and beatings about the bush,

"Cicero's way is right for addressing a judge whom one wishes to convince by fair means or foul, or for using on children, and the common people, with whom nothing must be left unsaid, in the hope that something will hit the mark."

Montaigne, "On Books" Essays Book Two, Chapter 10, above p 166.

Today this technique extends to the filing of overly prolix written submissions. It is as if the more that is said, the more likely it is that the judge will agree with something that is said.

Modern commentators can be even less charitable about judicial fact finding. Alan Dershowitz asserts that the political nature of judicial appointments in the United States means that judges who wish to be promoted should side against criminals:

"The heavy thumb of careerism is on the scale of justice in nearly every criminal case, certainly in high-profile cases involving unpopular defendants."

Dershowitz, Letters to a Young Lawyer, 2001, p 120.

Richard Posner complains that

"Too many of our judicial opinions contain unexamined assumptions, conventional and perhaps shallow pieties, and confident assertions bottomed on prejudice and folklore."

Posner, The Problems of Jurisprudence, 1990, p 97.

He also observes that

"Appellate judges in our system often can conceal the role of personal preferences in their decisions by stating the facts selectively, so that the outcome seems to follow from them inevitably, or by taking liberties with precedents."

Posner, How Judges Think 2008, p 144.

Montaigne's observation on the way intelligent people tend to think could have been made, not 500 years ago, but today. Human nature can lead judges to find the facts to be as they want them to be. The appellate judges, who do not usually hear oral evidence, have, despite their protestations to the contrary, as much power to evaluate the evidence and to criticise a lower court's reasoning as the fact-finding courts have power in the guise of assessment of credibility.

The deference that appellate judges profess for the factual determinations of lower courts may be as sham as the deference given to judges by counsel. Deference attaches to the power exercised by judges, and is just as transient.

"Like that accorded to wealthy people, this deference is of the shallowest kind: as soon as the judge loses office, as soon as the wealthy person loses money, the deference ceases. Sensitive people realize this, but it does not eliminate the pleasure of being treated in a respectful manner. The republican simplicity of manners – the "I'm no better than the next guy" deportment – that most American judges affect is intended to be admired rather than to be taken seriously. Judges receive deference because they have power, and the power resides in their votes. They don't have much power (Supreme Court Justices are an important exception, and the petty tyranny of the trial judge is well known) and they are not much deferred to (with the same exceptions). But such deference as they do receive comes from their being, like wealthy people, more powerful than most people, not from being – like athletes, popular entertainers, war heroes, saints, and scientists – admired. Most judges are quickly forgotten after they leave office."

Richard Posner, Overcoming Law (1995) pp 120-121.

The difference in manners between the friendly informality of the superior court judges and the petty tyranny that is sometimes seen in the lower courts is probably universal. Working conditions vary, and the highly pressured muddle of lower court proceedings may contribute to a judge's bad manners. So too may inability to cope:

"A man who overestimates his capacities is apt to grow impatient, and even tyrannical, in the presence of difficulties."

AC Benson, From a College Window (1906), p 276.

The kind of judge who is suited to appellate work may have a personality that is not naturally given to unpleasantness, or that is not inclined to react to high pressure and disorder by unpleasantness:

" ... judging, especially at the appellate level, is an introvert's profession ..."

Richard Posner, How Judges Think (2008), p 137.

It may be that the pleasantness of high level judges is due, apart from their indulgence in the hypocrisy of a "republican simplicity of manners" or their relatively orderly and unpressured working conditions, to their having regressed to the kind of work they did at law school. Judgment writing is a scholarly activity, and the level of scholarship is often higher than that attained by the law teachers. This brings me to my point of view on these judges: they are scholars. Sometimes they are overeager to show their cleverness, especially when promotion may be a possibility. Usually they are like ambitious honours students.

Judges at the appellate levels have an educative function. Their judgments are often like extracts from text books or specialist treatises, and as such they are designed to be studied. Some of us do study them.

No comments: