The courtroom may be the judge’s kingdom, where he or she literally lays down the law – but if you want to get to know a judge, step back into chambers.
That’s where justices spend most of their time, crafting decisions, preparing for trial, sometimes hammering out settlements. There you’ll find a private office wherein judges can create their own space, a private retreat inside a very regimented system.
New York State Supreme Court Justice Leonard Austin’s chambers in Mineola, for instance, are adorned with a large picture of an eagle, frozen in flight over the word ‘Tenacity. ‘ A broken drill bit is mounted with another message: ‘Counsel, you know the drill. ‘
On the judge’s computer screen is another message to litigators: ‘Settle now or call your first witness. ‘
‘I usually angle it so they can see the screen,’ Austin said of the scrolling screensaver. He wants lawyers to know he’ll do what he can to foster a settlement, but is ready to take cases to trial.
Judges are the most high-profile players in the judiciary system, but few people go behind closed doors – physically and figuratively – to understand what makes them tick. They are, at once, the system’s most important and most ignored players.
First and foremost, riding the bench is a ‘public service,’ according to Judge Elizabeth Hazlitt Emerson, who left a high-paying job at a large Manhattan law firm to don the robes in 1995, first in Nassau County and now in Suffolk.
The state judiciary is a bundle of contradictions. Judges are elected as representatives of a political party, but objectivity is paramount. They’re powerful figures who run a trial, but often leave the decision to a jury. They’re the pinnacle of the judicial system – everyone stands when a judge enters the court – but in New York, state judges’ salaries haven’t risen in nearly a decade.
‘Some people do it because it’s the culmination of a career in law,’ said A. Thomas Levin, an attorney at Mineola’s Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein and past president of the Nassau County Bar Association. ‘Some find they’re interested in a situation where they can determine cases. Some people do it for power. Some people do it for prestige. ‘
Joseph DeMaro, a state Supreme Court judge for 29 years, said many justices prefer the ‘more structured’ and regular work of a judgeship to life in private practice. Others just think it’s a kick.
‘I still have moments when I’m sitting on the bench, looking out into the courtroom, rather than from the well,’ Austin said. ‘I still have moments when I want to pinch myself and make sure it’s really me sitting there. It’s just an amazing thing to me. ‘
While the judiciary’s basic tenets have, largely, remained the same, the life of a judge is a life of change.
Judges must keep learning and interpreting laws related to an ever-evolving world; electronic discovery – involving computerized records – is just one example of the ways judges must learn to specialize, much the way lawyers do.
There are even new courts to preside over. Family courts are now routine, as are courts specializing in matrimonial cases, but in New York and other states, some judges are now being assigned exclusively to commercial courts. Even specialized drug courts are cropping up. The idea is that specialized judges will develop the same expertise as specialized lawyers.
‘When you get a decision from him, it’s extremely well reasoned,’ John Gionis, a partner at Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, said of Austin, who specializes in commercial cases. ‘You may lose, but you know why you lose. ‘
‘Attorneys who practice in any specialized area would prefer to have a judge more knowledgeable about their area,’ said State Supreme Court Judge Ira Warshawsky.
Heavy case loads – some judges juggle 100 at a time – mean judges also need to be efficient. Austin, for instance, is known be efficient. Austin, for instance, is known to sit in his chambers, sleeves rolled up, and answer his own phone, sometimes surprising attorneys who expect an assistant.
‘I would say judges in the commercial division tend to be more hands-on,’ he said.
The trip from arguing before a judge to being a judge is the longest few yards in the legal profession. But almost any judge will tell you his or her career as a lawyer prepared them well for their bench duties.
‘There are a lot of similarities, lots of ways in which all the skills you acquire during your time in practice service you very well when you take the bench,’ said Emerson, adding she takes ‘the same approach I took in private practice’ to being a judge.
‘I make sure I’m fully prepared,’ Emerson said. ‘It creates a very good working atmosphere in the courtroom. I think it’s important we bring our ‘A’ game every single day. ‘
She noted that she enjoys the variety of being a judge, even within the specialized confines of the commercial division. ‘Every case is unique,’ the judge said.
While judges often preside over cases involving money, the judges themselves also face monetary issues. The state Legislature hasn’t hiked New York state judges’ pay in nearly a decade, leaving it stuck at $136,700 per year.
‘The pay is pretty low,’ said Levin. ‘They’re paying judges slightly more than first-year law students get at large law firms. ‘
In New York City, Warshawsky said, first-year associates at large firms easily earn $145,000, while Austin said judges’ ‘buying power’ has been eroded.
Federal judges have a built-in annual cost-of-living increase, something many state judges would like.
But money aside, judges often talk about the job as a chance to make a difference – not simply make an argument. When they don the black robe and head into the courtroom, they’re there to present a solution, and it’s ‘kind of a thrill,’ according to Austin. ‘I still find it exciting. ‘