My Journey From Junior Judge to Senior Sage – 20 years on the bench

Last summer marked my 20th year as a judge. Today marks my 56th birthday. You know that means I have a lot of cause to reflect on the passing years.

Not that I did, though. Reflect, that is. Not until I heard about Transparency International’s annual report on which countries are least and most corrupt. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first a look at being on the bench for a couple decades.

Judging Young

I don't look this young anymore.

I don’t look this young anymore.

I was only 35 when the Governor appointed me to the court. Like all new judges, I needed training. That’s one thing the California judiciary does well. Classes on all sorts of legal topics are created by judges for judges, and I attended as many as possible. The judge instructors would invite students to contact them later if anything came up that someone needed help with. I took them up on the offer all the time, calling these more experienced judges about cases I had that fell in their area of expertise.

After a while I started teaching classes for my fellow judges (from judicial ethics to historical jurisprudence), and served on statewide committees on issues that help keep the judicial branch running. Committee work and teaching put me in contact with hundreds of judges up and down the state.

A few years ago I started getting phone calls from people asking me for advice on their cases. I was happy to help, but wondered why so many judges were calling. Then it hit me.

I’d become an old guy.

It’s not that I was old age-wise. Rather, I was old judge-experience-wise. I’d been around long enough that people saw me as someone who might have experience with something they were facing for the first time. So I do what judges do for their colleagues: I help them figure a way to make the tough decisions that judges face every day.* In fact, I handled one of those calls from a judge just last night after dinner.

It’s not really that I’m a sage (as the title suggests), but I am getting senior.

The Role of the Courts in Avoiding Corruption

Transparency International’s corruption index ranked Denmark first while Somalia and North Korea are tied for last place among the countries studied.

Among the various aspects of government the study considered, they looked for “judiciaries that don’t differentiate between rich and poor, and that are truly independent from other parts of government.”

Impartiality has been the goal of the judiciary for thousands of years:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15.)

Hear the disputes between your people and judge fairly, whether the case is between two Israelites or between an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you. (Deuteronomy 1:16.)

The qualities of an independent judiciary are in the Bible too, just not as explicit.

Moses … chose capable men from all Israel and made them leaders of the people, officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. They served as judges for the people at all times. The difficult cases they brought to Moses, but the simple ones they decided themselves. (Exodus 18:24-26.)

Moses was not only the chief judge sitting alone on their version of a supreme court, but was the chief executive for the Israelites as well, a kind of president. Yet in this passage we see that Moses allowed the lower court judges to act independently of interference, whether from a higher court or the non-judge leaders of Israel.

This is the way courts are supposed to work today.

Courts are to be impartial concerning who is in the lawsuit or facing criminal charges, and they are to be independent of interference from other parts of government. The rich shouldn’t expect to win because they have some sort of importance or influence, and the executive and legislature should have no say in how a judge decides a given case.**

After 20+ years on the bench, I find these guides – impartiality and independence – to be timeless. Their simplicity is elegant and their purpose powerful, and in all it is Christ-like.

Thinking on these things is a good way to spend my birthday.


*By the way, if anyone tells you that judges have it easy, don’t believe it. I love my job but I also know that most people couldn’t handle hearing the awful things judges hear every day and yet are called on to make rational decisions over. There are a lot of jobs I am not at all suited for and would muck up before I even started, but I can do this one because this is a job I am suited for somehow. Not everyone is.

**Some societies have not only allowed the country’s leaders to dictate to judges how a case is to be decided but the judges have wholeheartedly gone along with it, such as in Nazi Germany. Countries like that end up at the bottom of lists of corrupt nations.


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21 Responses to My Journey From Junior Judge to Senior Sage – 20 years on the bench

  1. David Layzell says:

    This is interesting because The New Zealand Herald (Auckland’s daily newspaper) has devoted a page today to NZ’s fall in the Corruption Transparency rating from 1st in 2009-2013 to 2nd in 2014 and now to 4th. The three incidents that have led to the drop involve a conflict of interest between a Government minister and a company her husband is involved with in China, a too close relationship between a casino and the government and some involvement in a Saudi sheep deal.
    The article explains very clearly how the Transparency Index is calculated.

    • Tim says:

      I don’t know about the political/governmental issues for any of the countries ranked, but I did appreciate that a well-functioning judiciary is a mark of a high ranking country.

  2. Jeannie says:

    So interesting, Tim. It sounds like you have the right gifts to do this job well: compassion, empathy, resilience, a hopeful outlook on life, maybe? The impartiality part is so crucial to but such a huge challenge; I think we’re all tempted to make judgments based on secondary things or outside influences. Congratulations on your birthday AND your 20+ years as judge.

    • Tim says:

      It does take some experience to recognize when secondary matters might start to intrude, and then take steps to put them aside. So as the years go by I think I’ve gotten better at that, or at least I hope so!

  3. James says:

    Happy Birthday, Tim. If it’s any consolation, I reached 58 near the end of December, and you’ve clearly achieved an awful lot more than me. Best wishes for the new year.

  4. Pastor Bob says:

    What does the wise judge do when the “high priced” lawyer finds a clever maneuver to circumvent or manipulate the process. All the time, would we incorrect, but it does happen. Has not wealth corrupted the system somehow?

    • Tim says:

      I haven’t seen anyone actually pull off such manipulation, PB. If anyone, whether high priced, low priced or representing themselves tries to manipulate things unfairly, the judge is there to put a stop to such shenanigans. I do that.

      What people might label clever manipulating maneuvers are likely just a party or attorney following the process when the other side might not know it as well. That happens. If one side files a motion on time, then it will be heard and ruled on, and perhaps that party will also show that their motion is meritorious. The other side might try to file a similar motion but not get it in on time. The legislature has created time frames for court processes and I am not the one who decides whether the process should have had different time frames; I’m the judge who applies the law the legislature voted on and the governor signed.

      An untimely motion will be denied while a timely one will be considered and either denied or granted on its merits. It’s not clever manipulation. It’s due process. I like due process. It’s constitutional.

  5. “judiciaries that don’t differentiate between rich and poor, and that are truly independent from other parts of government.”
    Really important, and I really respect your integrity (as much as I know of you from conversations tweets and blogs), but doesn’t it ignore the way corporations and the rich lobby and finance Government representatives, buying the very laws that judges have to judge by? Money plays a big part in the representation people can afford in court too, and the quality of legal arguments the judge has to weigh up. How do you balance that, can it be balanced?

    • Tim says:

      In California we have the initiative process where the people can and do enact laws directly, sometimes when the legislature has voted on a contrary law. The people’s initiative takes priority over contradictory laws that might already be on the books.

  6. Bev Murrill says:

    We thank God for people in the legal system like you. We don’t take you for granted and we applaud your determination to do right, no matter the cost.

  7. Tuija says:

    Congratulations, again, Tim!
    It’s not that you’re getting old – it’s just that you have been gaining experience for a longer time 🙂

    Thanks for your thoughts on the judiciary systems and corruption, too. It’s interesting to see my country at #2 on the cleanest list with our nearest neighbours Sweden, Norway and Denmark also in the top five. I’ve lived in this Northern European culture of lots of freedom and hardly any corruption all my life, and it’s easy to take it for granted – ‘this is how things should be and this is how they are’ (not that any country is perfect, mine certainly isn’t). But it’s easy to forget in the day-to-day life how much there is still to do on the global scale.

  8. Laura Droege says:

    I enjoy hearing about your job, Tim, and I’m thankful that there are people like you in the court system. What do you think has contributed the most to the development of your impartiality? And as someone who hears awful things every day, how do you set that aside at the end of the work day so you can be emotionally available for your family? That’s something I’ve never been able to do; I hear one horrible story and it haunts me for days, making it difficult to engage with my husband and kids.

    • Tim says:

      Part of being impartial is temperament, the aspect of me that some people might think means I perhaps don’t care. I do care, but can withhold reaching conclusions until I have the information I need to know just what it is I am supposed to be caring about. the other part is experience. I’ve had tons of cases where I thought I could see how everything would end up, only to find it ended up elsewhere by the time the last bit of evidence was presented.

      When it comes to not carrying the weight of the cases with me, that too is partly temperament and partly experience. There are some that are so weighty that they consume all my energy and attention even when I’m not in the courthouse, but those are blessedly rare.

  9. Pingback: When Courts and Church Collide and Divide | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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