Federal judges are appointed for life and often remain on the bench well past their prime. Talk about job security. Only Congress through an impeachment proceeding can remove them.
Tennessee trial judges are elected for an eight-year term. The state is broken up into circuits, and the citizens of each circuit elect their trial judges. This makes good sense since it will be the elected judge who will resolve their disputes and lawsuits. Nashville, Davidson County, is its own circuit. Smaller Tennessee counties combine to form circuits, and the judge alternates sitting in each county seat.
Once on the bench a trial judge’s decisions stand until overruled by a Court of Appeals, often two years later. A Court of Appeals can affirm, reverse, or remand a case back to the trial judge, with its ruling on some evidentiary question. No judge likes to be reversed, and no judge wants to retry a case where a higher court instructs him or her to do something differently the second time around.
During the course of my career I’ve seen and heard many unbelievable courtroom stories where a trial judge, by his acts or rulings, proved my hypothesis that a trial judge is all-powerful in the courtroom.
A Tennessee federal judge once sentenced a man to wear a sign around his neck, “I’m a liar and a fraud,” and walk his property line so the entire community would know what he was. I watched the same judge throw an Oklahoma visiting attorney out of “his” courtroom because he was wearing a bolo tie and told him “not to return until he had a real tie.” I really felt sorry for that guy.
I had my first jury trial before this very same judge. I can remember how hard I gripped the podium. Years later, I was trying a three-week jury trial before him, and a juror during the judge’s preliminary instructions began dosing off. The judge loudly and abusively woke the juror and dismissed him from the jury. However, rather than send the juror home in disgrace, the judge ordered that the dismissed juror return to court every day and sit through the lengthy trial. The judge sent him packing as the jury began their deliberations, and the dismissed juror never knew the outcome of the case he was forced to attend.
Another federal judge installed a traffic light in his courtroom and insisted that attorneys who appeared before him on motions be assigned specific time limits for argument. A green light indicated that the argument should begin. The yellow light was a two-minute warning that your time was about to expire. A red light meant stop your argument, midsentence if necessary. You had to argue your motion and watch the traffic light at the same time. It was unnerving.
During a personal injury jury trial in circuit court, I caught a defendant in a good lie. (That was one of my favorite things to do.) A few minutes later I returned to the question, reworded slightly, and after a pause the witness lied again. I didn’t ask another question for a minute or two. Everyone in the courtroom knew he’d lied and been caught. The silence was deafening. It was obvious to everyone just how uncomfortable he was.
When twenty minutes later I asked the same question a third time, the defendant refused to answer. When the judge directed him to respond to my question, the defendant started to argue with the judge. Without warning, the judge excused the jury. Once the jury was out of earshot, the defendant stupidly got confrontational with the judge, and when he rose from his seat to get in the judge’s face, the judge held him in contempt and had her court officer escort the defendant to the county jail (where he spent two days).
When the jury returned, I had no witness and was forced to read his deposition. I won the case but got low balled on the amount of damages. I’m convinced that the jury held me responsible for the defendant’s absence from the courtroom. I learned that day that you could take a good thing too far. The judge acting as the thirteenth juror awarded additional damages because I think even she realized that her finding of contempt against the lying defendant injured my client.
Judges are generally smart people. Some are lazy, but most are trying to do the right thing. The purpose of a courtroom is to provide a place for justice to occur. The judge is the referee, and at least during the trial, he’s all-powerful.