Getting to know what’s it like being a federal judge

Gavel and law books

SUSI Scholars’ privileged behind-the-curtains glimpse

No country on earth is crime-free. This being true, the challenge facing leaders (globally) is fighting crime and maintaining law and order. The enormity of the challenge (e.g., crime rate and frequency, type, and so on) may vary from country to country, but the truth is that leaders or politicians take seriously the issue of crime in their countries. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, one of the first things he mentioned at his inaugural address in 2017 was “rampant” crime in the US. As a matter of fact, Trump referred to it as “American carnage” and announced that he would put immediate end to it. A 2020 Pew Research study showed that property theft is much more common than violent crime in the US, though both crimes topped other forms, and that public perception of crime nationally is high.

Judges

When Donald Trump, like any political leader, said he would fight crime, his reliance was on the judicial system frontlined by judges. These judges, many of whom are barely known except by how they are portrayed in the media, carry the burden of ensuring justice for victims of crimes which important in gaining public trust in the justice system. But what is it like sitting on the bench as a Judge and what does it take? 

This year’s SUSI Scholars had the privilege to get a glimpse of what it means to be a federal judge in the world’s largest and leading democracy. Scholars listened to, and interacted with U.S. District Court Judge John Tuchi, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Barry Silverman, and U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa. This glimpse which many, including the press and most ordinary Americans, are not privy to, showed the humanity of judges, revealing their emotional experiences as they battle against odds (the media, political pressures, public trust) to urge and maintain public confidence in the justice system. 

Judges Tuchi, Humetewa, and Silverman spoke with the SUSI scholars
From left to right: Judge Tuchi, Judge Humetewa, Judge Silverman

What it takes to be a good judge

The first thing Judge John Tuchi mentioned regarding what it takes to be a good judge is technical competence and experience. He said this is important because “people are counting on you, and institutions are counting on you to get the answer right according to the law.” He also mentioned demeanor (patience, open-mindedness, consistency, fairness, and predictability) and approach, all of which he says are important to discourage people from attempting self-help (such as taking the law in their own hands).

Judge Tuchi said letting people know that the legal system is a viable choice for justice will discourage self-help attempts. While this may seem petty to the ordinary person who knows little about what judges go through to raise confidence in the justice system, judges experience the onerous task of sifting through tons of information to get acquainted with the facts of cases before them. Thanks to the digital age, judges can now achieve this with less effort and time depending on their preferences and competence with respect to technology use.

Information processing preference

 U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa appreciates the digital intervention, especially when one considers the volume of cases and accompanying paperwork but relies on “the written product.” Judge Barry Silverman on the other hand enjoys the search capabilities and storage space afforded by digital technology. This means not having to worry about where to store papers and what to throw away and what to keep. A conclusion here is that judges are adjusting to and using digital technology in their practices but still also deal with papers in doing their work. This balancing act between paper and technology may be necessary to deal with the public and media perception that judges are overwhelmed and may not have the time to read through everything placed before them.

Public and media perception

Because I come from a country whose legal system was hit hardest by nearly two decades of civil war and is still undergoing reform efforts supported and led by the United States, this section of the conversations for me was the most interesting: how the judges believed they were perceived by the public and the press, and how this influenced or affected their practice. 

Judges don’t just fall into their roles out of the blue. They are appointed by politicians or an incumbent president. This certainly is true for the United States and my country (Liberia), whose constitution and entire governmental structure and system is modeled after the U.S.. While appointing judges to benches may be a constitutional duty of the president, interest and influence may underpin most such appointments. 

For example, a 2006 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) points to “lack of independence from the executive” as one major challenge affecting the country’s justice system. (Turned out I was not alone on this issue, as fellow SUSI Scholar Emiljano Kaziaj from Albania pointed out the same challenge as one facing their justice system).

As suggested by Judge Tuchi, lack of confidence in the judicial or justice system can cause individuals to resort to “self-help,” taking the law into their own hands, or what in Liberia we call mob violence. This is certainly the case here in Liberia. Public perception of the justice system is at an all-time low. People believe police and court officials receive bribes, and in high profile cases judges are influenced by their political persuasions or leanings. Consequently, self-justice or mob violence seems the most viable option for many. Interestingly, however, most of what the public knows about cases and judges comes from media reports.

So, when host Dan Barr posed the question of what judges think about public or media misunderstanding about their work I became even more interested in the conversation, especially since many people (sometimes even myself) see U.S. society as utopian and free of these experiences and issues.

Partial view of SUSI Scholars listening intently to Judge Hutemewa responding to a question
Partial view of SUSI Scholars listening intently to Judge Hutemewa responding to a question

Not only did Judge Tuchi first jump at it, his tone and rapid speech (compared to his previous comments) showed how troubled he is by how judges are framed or portrayed in the media. Specifically, he lamented, perhaps based on personal experience, how media framing of legal rulings focuses more on the background of judges and not on the facts of the case that may have led to the ruling. Said Judge Tuchi, “every time you read a news account of a court decision now, it tells you broadly what the decision was, and in the very next sentence it identifies the judge as a Obama appointee, or a Trump appointee, or a Bush appointee as if that has relevance to how a decision is made.” Similarly, Judge Diane Humetewa said news consumers often only run with the headlines and care little about the details showing the analysis and reasons for the judge’s decision. 

Judges Silverman and Tuchi pointed to judicial independence as guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, which provides that judges cannot be fired nor have their pay cut. From the judges’ perspective, the extent of influence this guaranteed independence may have on them in the United States as anticipated or hoped for by the framers of the U.S. constitution may be strong enough to impact judicial practice, to the extent that judges can be independent of those who appointed them. 

However, a look at the Pew Research statistics mentioned above suggest a different reality as far as ordinary Americans think. From my own perspective or experience, and perhaps those of my colleagues in this program, the wish for judicial independence may only be a thing on paper and never in practice in most countries. For example, judges in Liberia do enjoy lifetime appointment, no salary cuts (but possible increases), yet they still make decisions–or are perceived as making decisions–to support or protect the political system or regime. My colleague Orhan from Turkey said something similar referencing his home situation.

Important take-aways from this privileged opportunity with the three U.S. Federal judges would be: 

  • the media and journalists play a key role in helping the judicial system work and in strengthening democracy,
  • to do this and do so effectively and efficiently, journalists must fully understand the law and how the legal system works, including how judges access and process information, 
  • journalists must take the time to read case files to objectively understand how judges arrive at certain decision or conclusions,
  • journalists must be dispassionate observers or they might themselves become unsuspecting pawns,
  • when publishing the outcomes of cases, journalists must publish objectively, providing and pointing out all the facts to readers in ways they can easily understand

An important question by my colleague Emiljano about what the judges thought would be important to include in our journalism curricula was not answered, but I don’t believe this was intentional. Based on the interaction with the three Federal judges, I intend to add more practicality to our journalism courses by getting journalism students to interact with judges as part of their coursework. Just as we benefitted from this interaction, students, as prospective journalists, will gain a better understanding of judges, their humanity, and ultimately what they go through to make the criminal justice system work. Another insightful session at the Institute!   

1 thought on “Getting to know what’s it like being a federal judge

  1. This is a very interesting, and comprehensive blog. I must say that because of the sacred nature of their jobs, a lot of judges are unable to make public appearances to defend their positions. This helps to spread the misperceptions against them, and it is unfair, especially because, at least, in the cases of our three federal judges, I could vividly see that they go beyond the ordinary to make sure that justice is served.

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