By Judge Andrea Darvas1
Profound changes are happening in King County Superior Court. Out of King County’s 53 Superior Court judges, 15 are in their first term, and of the remaining 38, six have announced that they will be retiring at the end of the present term. This means that there will be at least six open seats, and possibly more if additional judges decide between now and filing week (May 16–20) that they will not be running for another term. In short, there are a lot of new judges in King County and there soon will be even more.
The transition from lawyer to judge is not easy, and it requires some changes that those contemplating a move to the bench may not have thought about. This article is intended to provide some things to think about and prepare for if you are thinking about becoming a judge.
“It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame
Everybody’s so different, I haven’t changed.”2
You are a lawyer. In our society, that role carries with it certain expectations and, frankly, certain baggage. Then suddenly one day you are a judge, and you have to shed your lawyer expectations and baggage, and acquire new and different sets. In your previous role as a lawyer, you would (unless you are a fool) go out of your way to be polite to court staff. Suddenly, court staff are going out of their way to be polite to you.
Lawyers will treat you very differently. When you interact with lawyers, whether in court or out, they will be deferential. They will rarely disagree with you openly, even if they think you are wrong, and they will laugh at your jokes whether your jokes are actually funny or not.
You will take to the bench only what you bring with you. Neither the robe nor the seat behind the bench nor the title “Your Honor” comes equipped with intelligence, wisdom, knowledge of the law or good judgment. You will not suddenly and magically become smarter, wiser or wittier.
However, you will become a public figure, both on and off the bench. Everything you say in court is on the record and most of it will be recorded forever. Even when you are not in court, your words and actions will reflect not only on you, but on the court and on our justice system.
Be Prepared To Work Very Hard
Some lawyers think judges don’t work hard and perhaps some lawyers expect to be able to “slack off” if they reach the judiciary. Those expectations would be incorrect. Superior Court judges preside over trials Monday to Thursday, and on Friday hear dispositive motions, administrative law appeals and criminal sentencings. When do we prepare for trials and the Friday hearings, and when do we decide all the “non-dispositive” motions that come before us? Often the answer is “evenings and weekends.”
This is especially true for a new judge. Even the smartest and most experienced lawyers will have a steep learning curve. New judges inevitably will be faced with making decisions in areas of the law with which they are unfamiliar. And even familiar areas of the law look different from the bench than they do from counsel table.
People will bring you their disputes and expect you to resolve them fairly and quickly. You will need to make decisions and to state them clearly and confidently. It is important to get it right and it is important to be seen as getting it right. This can entail a delicate balancing act between being sure that you are making the right decision versus second guessing yourself on a close issue.
Be Prepared To Re-examine
Your Identity and Self-image
Lawyers spend their professional lives as advocates for their clients and their clients’ interests. Judges must forgo the temptation to act as advocates. To the extent that your self-image is defined by the causes you champion (“I’m an environmentalist!” “I’m a libertarian!”) or the clients you represent (“I’m a plaintiffs’ trial lawyer!” “I’m a prosecutor!”), you will need to make some adjustments.
There will be times when what you want — or what you perceive as fair — is at odds with controlling law. You have to go with the law, every single time, whether you like it or not, whether it is popular or not, whether it will advance your career or not. And if you think you want to be a judge, you have to be honest with yourself about whether you can do this. Some people can and some cannot.
There is nothing wrong with recognizing that you should forgo the bench and keep on being an advocate. Courageous advocates are the ones who change the world.
Prepare To Give up Many of
Your First Amendment Rights
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