Socrates aptly described the essential qualities of a good judge: “Four things belong to a judge: To hear courteously; to answer wisely; to consider soberly; and to decide impartially.” These words remain as true today as they were when Socrates first spoke them more than 2,400 years ago.
Transcending this basic philosophy of felicitous judicial attributes, the Illinois Supreme Court has adopted formal rules of judicial conduct. Several of the court’s rules and underlying canons embrace the sentiments of Socrates.
Today’s focus is on the first two characteristics Socrates suggested appertain to a judge, “to hear courteously” and “to answer wisely.”
Inarguably, these are basic and necessary qualities of a good judge. In fact, the Supreme Court has adopted a rule that speaks to each. Specifically, Rule 63(A)(3) provides that: “A judge should be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals with in an official capacity.”
Thus, it is clear that a judge should listen courteously and patiently and be dignified in the process. Conversely, no rule can require a judge to answer wisely, as wisdom can be found only at the intersection of intelligence and experience. However, the manner in which a judge answers the issues presented often reveals his or her relative wisdom: A truly wise judge answers just as the judge should listen. That is, courteously.
The preamble of the Code of Judicial Conduct makes clear that the canons and rules are not merely suggestions, but rather, are “authoritative” and intended “to state basic standards which should govern the conduct of all judges and provide guidance to assist judges in establishing and maintaining high standards of judicial and personal conduct.”
Therefore, the directives of Rule 63(A)(3) are not just words on a page, or tips on discretionary courtroom etiquette, but rather, are a codification of what is expected and required of a judge. In sum, courtesy in the courtroom is not only about good manners, civility and politeness; it is about what a Supreme Court rule requires of a judge.
Fortunately, there are many excellent judges who, while on the bench, always exhibit an exemplary temperament. They remain calm and collected and treat all who enter the courtroom with the dignity and respect they are entitled to. Indeed, such judges are a credit to the bench.
Unfortunately, compliance with Rule 63(A)(3) is not uniform throughout the judiciary. As we all know, some judges often raise their voices to a disconcerting level. Worse yet, some seem to routinely yell at and demean lawyers, litigants and others who appear before them.
In fact, the most recent report of the Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board reflects that in 2012 alone there were 115 complaints filed against judges that fell within the category of “Demeanor/Injudicious Temperament (e.g. impatient, rude, conduct that is intimidating and inappropriate language/commentary).” This category ranks fourth out of 21 in terms of the largest number of complaints filed against Illinois judges. (See 2012-2013 Fiscal Year Report, State of Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board, at Table 7.)
There are many cases nationwide that illustrate the harm such conduct causes to the integrity of the judiciary as a whole and to judges individually. For example, the Michigan Supreme Court suspended a judge charged with displaying a gross lack of judicial temperament by berating counsel who appeared before him. Matter of Del Rio, 400 Mich. 665 (1977).
The Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge after she was charged with using the power of judicial office to demean, ridicule and personally humiliate an attorney. In re Carnesoltas, 563 So. 2d 83 (1990).
The Illinois Courts Commission removed a judge from office for, among other reasons, engaging in rude, inappropriate, undignified, prejudicial and biased behavior while on the bench. In re Golniewicz, No. 02 CC 1 (Ill. Ct. Comm’n Nov. 15, 2004).
Surely, such disturbing instances of injudicious temperament would cause Socrates to roll over in his grave.
Additionally, such conduct can cause irreparable prejudicial damage to a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial. The Illinois Appellate Court has held that a defendant was denied a fair and impartial trial where the trial court’s remarks conveyed an impression to the jury that he felt defense counsel was not doing his job properly and that the defense was wasting the court’s time. People v. Eckert, 194 Ill.App.3d, 667, 674 (5th Dist. 1990).
That same court had previously held that a trial court demonstrated prejudice against a defendant when the court slammed a pencil, heaved a sigh and made facial gestures in response to defense counsel’s question. People v. Mays, 188 Ill.App.3d 974, 982-83 (5th Dist. 1989).
For decades, “Our Supreme Court has cautioned that jurors are ‘ever watchful of the trial judge’ and noted that the judge’s slightest word ‘may prove controlling.’” People v. Mitchell, 228 Ill.App.3d 167, 169 (1st Dist. 1992), quoting People v. Marino, 414 Ill. 445 (1953).
In harmony, the Illinois Appellate Court recently noted that the need for judicial restraint in the court’s conduct and remarks is not limited to the presence of the jury but must be maintained throughout all of its dealings with the litigants who come before it. People v. Johnson, 2012 IL App (1st) 091730, ¶ 80.
Perhaps human nature is such that there inevitably will be those regrettable and hopefully limited occasions when strident courtroom discussions occur between the court and counsel. Nevertheless, the fact remains: Discourtesy and hostility from the bench is more than merely off-putting.
It diminishes the solemnity of the proceedings, demeans the judicial process and embarrasses a proud and noble profession. The good news is that judges who routinely engage in this sort of conduct are in the distinct minority.
In sum, not only is a good judicial temperament befitting and required; it is essential to the integrity and honor of our system of jurisprudence. As stated in the preamble of the Code of Judicial Conduct, “[J]udges, individually and collectively, must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to enhance and maintain confidence in our legal system.” Good temperament is vital to this endeavor.
Suffice it to say, at the end of the day, after the last case has been called and court has been gaveled to a close, a judge will have brought great honor to him or herself and the bench if he or she can say: I heard courteously; I answered wisely; I considered soberly; and I decided impartially.