Asking the impact a judge’s career has had on others is a little like asking for an epitaph. It is, of course, a vital part of being a judge. But impact on whom?
In criminal courts, a judge’s impact on a defendant seems obvious—but even then, not
always so clear. Undoubtedly a judge directly and often severely impacts defendants, be it in the
most noticeable circumstance of sentencing, but also, for example, by the countless rulings the
judge makes to guarantee a fair proceeding. Yet perhaps the judge’s impact is even greater in
simply how the judge treats the person—such as treating the defendant like a person and not a
file—by the words chosen, the tone used, and the patience shown. And often, perhaps most
often, that impact may not be discernible for months or years, if ever.
But not always. Last summer I was walking with a friend down the pier toward the
lighthouse at Waukegan Harbor during the noon hour. A large young man was walking toward
us. As we neared, he stopped, pointed at me, and asked whether I was a judge. He then said that
I was his judge, and had sent him to prison several years earlier. He said he had hated me, but
over time realized that I had saved his life, that he had turned himself around, and he wanted me
to know that. Sometimes the impact doesn’t happen right away—and sometimes it changes over
time. Life can be full of surprises.
But a judge’s impact on others goes beyond the parties in a case. Many non-party
witnesses appear in court, including perhaps most prominently for this discussion victims in
criminal cases. Even more broadly, how a judge acts and what a judge says impacts the
countless family members, friends, and other members of the community who may have an
interest in a particular case, or who simply are interested in seeing how our justice system
operates, either firsthand or through the media.
Indeed, the judge can also impact jurors called to serve in the judge’s courtroom. Unlike
parties or others with an interest in a case, jurors are interested only in doing justice—and, to
some extent, interested in the judge. Jurors, by definition, are plucked from their lives, forced to
put their various responsibilities and schedules on hold, and required to immerse themselves into
strangers’ problems, all the while to be guided by complex principles of law and ethereal
concepts of justice. It is no surprise jurors can be anxious, resentful, and even traumatized by the
experience. Again, how a judge acts and what a judge says can have a lasting impact on these
members of our society, as well.
Over the years, various participants in cases before me—including parties, victims, witnesses, jurors, and attorneys—have from time to time shared with me their impressions and
experiences before my court. Absent feedback, one can only speculate on the impact one has on
another. Attached are a few notes and cards I have received over the years—from sitting in
traffic court to presiding over a felony docket—reflecting how a person felt impacted by my
words or actions in some way. Like standing before a mirror, seeing oneself through another’s
eyes is always a humbling experience.
I can only continue to strive that, whatever the
circumstances, the impact of my judicial career has on others upholds the tremendous trust
placed in me and enhances our community’s respect for our judiciary.