From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 2: Judges

In one landlord/tenant case before a judge who was not so swift, the landlord claimed the tenant hadn’t paid rent in three months while the tenant said he was up to date in his rent. The judge asked the tenant if he had a canceled check or receipt as proof but the tenant said the rent had been paid in cash and that he’d never thought it necessary to get a receipt. When the judge then asked if he had any witnesses to the payment, the tenant said he did: “the man upstairs.” The judge asked where the witness was and the tenant repeated that the witness was “the man upstairs.” In his wisdom, the judge then told the tenant that if he had trouble getting the witness to appear, the judge would help the tenant by issuing a subpoena. The tenant thought he was going crazy. He kept telling the judge “it’s the man upstairs” but the judge never got the message. Basically the judge was a pretty nice guy but if you got justice from him, it was purely coincidental.

Some of the other judges were not so “nice.” One judge had been an ADA in the office of District Attorney and while he thought of himself as being very smart, in reality he was a racist. If you had a black defendant in a criminal matter, you had to tell this judge that your client was a great basketball player. Otherwise he didn’t think he was worthy of consideration. This phony basketball claim kept an awful lot of clients out of jail.

One County Court judge was supposed to be very smart but he only seemed racist and abusive to me. I had a client, charged with felonious possession of a gun, who had a drug problem. His parents wanted him admitted to a facility for treatment and the District Attorney’s office had no objection but when I made an application in open court, requesting that the case be put over for a few months so that the client could be admitted to the facility, he began to berate me. He said that I pushed and pushed and never let go, that I was like a shopkeeper who always tried to make every sale. It was clear to me that this was an anti-Semitic diatribe and I told him that. He denied it, telling me that his former law partner was Jewish. He granted my application and I was convinced that had it not been for my accusing him of anti-Semitism he would have turned it down.

I tried to bring my complaint of anti-Semitism before the Administrative Judge of the County Court but he refused to see me; he did not want to get involved. When I failed to get another judge to see me, I filed a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct. News of this made the rounds among the judges and lawyers and I thought I would be castigated for what I had done—but it was just the opposite. Some of this Judge’s colleagues came to me, expressing their appreciation for what I had done since they felt this particular judge was abusive and one big “pain in the ass”. Some asked me if the incident with the judge had occurred before or after lunch. They felt it had probably been after a lunch during which he had done some drinking. In reality, though, this all happened before lunch and drinking probably did not enter into it.

I’m sure these kinds of judges are to be found all over America. If the lawyer gets a smart and decent judge, the lawyer has to consider himself lucky. But even if the judge is vicious and racist, the poor lawyer has to say “Your Honor” this and “Your Honor” that. But on a few occasions, I rebelled.

My client was scheduled for sentencing on a misdemeanor charge. The judge had promised probation and that’s what I expected. However, there was one wrinkle in the case. Between the time of his conviction and his sentencing, my client was arrested on another misdemeanor charge that was still pending when I came before the judge in his chambers. He insisted the deal was off and he wanted to give my client six months in prison. I told him that one thing had nothing to do with the other and that since the second case was still pending, the client had to be presumed innocent in regard to that case. The judge insisted on the six-month sentence but I suggested one month. He went down to five months and I suggested one and a half, and we kept going on and on like that. Suddenly the judge said to his uniformed court officer, looking at me with hatred in his eyes, “Arrest that man.” The court officer told the judge she couldn’t do that because I happened to be her lawyer in a personal matter, whereupon the judge started shouting and called on her to take his blood pressure. I suggested to the judge that he recuse himself, which he did. The case was assigned to another judge.

A few days later, my associate came running to me to tell me that this same judge was about to sentence one of our clients to jail on a DWI charge when he had already submitted himself for two months to a residential facility, which clearly did him more good than what would probably have been thirty days in jail. I ran over to the judge’s courtroom which was absolutely filled with lawyers having legal matters before the court, and asked to be recognized. I suggested the judge recuse himself from the case with my client and when the judge asked for the grounds of my request, I looked him in the eyes and said, “Judge, the grounds are that you are being irrational.” You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone (including me) was expecting the judge to tell the Court Officer to arrest me at once. But to our surprise, he did no such thing. He granted my request without referring to my claimed reason and ordered the transfer of the case to another judge. On the one hand I felt sorry for the judge but, on the other, I thought of all those defendants he’d “screwed” because of his irrationality. There is something about being a judge that lends itself to a sort of tyranny. No matter what the judge says or does, you’re not supposed to say anything and I think this has gone too far. If the judge is abusive or if he is simply a fool, it should be the lawyer’s duty to do something about it.

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