August 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Bailiffs: Eyes, Ears and Helping Hands

 

I write this as I say goodbye to my bailiff, Kristen Coverdale, who leaves Superior Court this week for a position in global development at the Gates Foundation. As much fun as answering the phone of the presiding judge is, I could hardly compete with that offer.

Answering the phone calls to the presiding judge is an experience like none other at the Court. On the one hand, calls come in from the county executive, the County Council, the Supreme Court - okay, more accurately, their staff. Occasionally there is a call directly from one of the above - and when that happens, they are rarely happy.

And then there are important phone calls from entities such as the governor's legal counsel (judicial appointments); the Commission on Judicial Conduct (it is always confidential); and even Homeland Security (I could not make up the story the agent told me or what I had to do about it). My motto: Any day the Department of Homeland Security does not call is a good day.

The vast majority of callers are lost or confused. My name is on every single case schedule issued by the Clerk's Office, so it seems like everyone without a lawyer thinks I am their judge. There are others who believe my colleagues work for me (they most certainly do not) and I can change their decisions (that's up to the Court of Appeals, we tell them). There are people who are angry and just need a listening ear. Kristen does a great job with them.

She does an even better job with those who feel like they have exhausted every resource - she'll research online as they talk, trying to help them find legal help, or maybe a food bank. Her goal - and my goal - is for litigants such as these to feel that we have done everything we can to help, without giving legal advice.

And there also are the people who just make no sense. Listening from a room away, I sometimes feel as though she is being asked to connect the caller with Oz the Great and Powerful. Let me tell you, nothing makes one feel more like the woman behind the curtain than parenting a teen.

Indeed, I worry that the stories I share with Kristen about being a single parent of a 15-year-old son have scared her off parenthood forever. Bailiffs are often the judges' confidantes. They live through our personal challenges with us in a way no one else in the courtroom does. We entrust them with our secrets. My bailiff fights with a medical supply company on my behalf because I simply do not have time. There are others who have toted legal briefs to the hospital or driven an ailing judge to the emergency room. We know they will keep our personal trials confidential. Their loyalty is prized above all.

Unlike our significant others, bailiffs see what we see in court every day. They know how hard it can be to hear. They know how agonizing some decisions are. They know why sometimes we cry (or, at least, shut ourselves in our offices). People on the outside do not realize the stress of appearing to be calm and reasonable in the face of unrelenting anguish or aggravation. Some things are impossible to share with someone who wasn't there. There is a reason that judges hire and fire their own bailiffs: No one else could choose the person who plays this role for a judge.


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