Roger writing the LAWmag
Jan 2013

Mea Culpa Judge Smith: A Judge's Confessions

In Running From The Law, author Deborah Aaron sought out Madam Justice Smith for a soul-to-soul.

The typical prattle from judges on judging seem written for the local kindergarten class. But Judge Smith actually lets her hair down and gave a refreshingly genuine picture of the pre- and post-appointment life of a judge, and of a female lawyer and judge in an era where there were still gender-based glass ceilings.

Judge Smith was a graduate from the Idaho law School (1969) and her practice stretched from 1970 to 1984.

"Back in 1970, the senior partner of the (law) firm I joined said to me, "Someday you're going to be on the bench." I laughed it off because that was not what I saw for myself. I saw myself as a fire-breathing litigator.

judicial confession booth"In my first four years of practice, it was my goal to do every kind of proceeding and action at least once. What I ended up enjoying most was the trial work.

"But as a woman lawyer in the early 1970's, I didn't have many examples to follow. At one extreme, there were women lawyers in title companies, and at the other, there was Bernice the Bitch.

"By the time I was ready to go out on my own, I decided that if I had to choose one image, I'd be like Bernice, which in those days meant being pretty abrasive and strident. But remember, back then, if a woman didn't throw down the gauntlet right away, she got run over.

"I worked horrendous hours because when men opposed me (which was almost all the time), they tended to prepare harder. They took it very personally if they lost a case to a woman, as if somehow it was a challenge to their manhood. Fortunately, as my reputation preceded me, men expected a female barracuda, and I could afford to be nicer.

"As I became more experienced, the first thing I would do in almost every major case was to take the opposing counsel to lunch. I spent half the time talking about the case and the other half speaking personally, finding out whether the lawyer was married and had kids, what his hobbies were, what other pressures he might be experiencing in addition to the case we had in common and how all these factors might affect the progress of our case. If possible, I'd make a little pact to avoid hostility between us even as we advocated the clients' hostilities.

"As the years went by, though, I noticed that attorneys were becoming less and less cooperative. There was no such thing as settling a case over a cup of coffee. It was all so stress-producing that I used to come home like a helicopter setting down. I was all wired up, outraged and upset.

true judicial confessions painting"In time, all that combat steered me into the judiciary ....

"The hardest adjustment in moving to the bench was shedding the adversarial role. As a judge, you have to sit back and wait for the other side to wage their attack. With my background as a litigator, that was difficult. I would listen to one side's arguments and force myself not to cut in and say, "Well what about this," and "What about that," and "Gee, haven't you considered this, this and this?"

"I had to consciously jump back from an adversarial orientation to become the decider. That's turned out to be the best thing about being a judge - the opportunity to do what I think is right.

"And, in some ways, it's the worst too, because it is an awesome challenge.

"There are downsides to being a judge. First of all, the loneliness of the judiciary is not overrated. And I'm definitely more restricted in my public interaction, having to watch what I say about everything. I'm never sure if some inadvertent statement I make is going to end up being lambasted on the front page of the newspaper.

"All in all, though, I find this very satisfying ... the best years of my life."

Editor's Note: Ms Aaron's book does not clearly identify Judge Smith except to refer to her as "Judge Smith" and to give a cursory references to "Bernice" and to academic credentials. We are not told, for example, in which American state "Justice Smith" presided.


  • Aaron, Deborah, Running From The Law (Seattle: Niche Press, 1989), pages 116-117


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