By John Guy • 4th Circuit Judge
Whether by election or appointment, becoming a judge is a little like becoming a parent. After months of hand-wringing and anticipation, the duties and responsibilities of this remarkable role are put upon one in a matter of minutes.
And like a new child, the new job doesn’t arrive with an instruction manual. One minute you are one of approximately 80,000 licensed attorneys in our state, advocating for a client, and the next, you are the person in the black robe, deciding a client’s case.
Also, like the new parent, all that you thought you might know about this new position, you are now expected to thoroughly know.
After convincing yourself that all those birthing classes have made you an expert in the matter, you realize how much you have to learn when for the first time your child is placed in your arms; or as a judge, when the gavel first hits its target.
Like the new parent, judges don’t have the luxury of a calling a timeout, or marking the package “return to sender.”
The courtroom door swings open, everyone stands and a judge is tasked not only with providing an answer, but the legally correct answer. It’s a daunting and humbling experience.
How does one go from the courtroom well to the bench? Conscientiously. Graciously. Thoughtfully. With concentrated preparation. And with a weight on one’s shoulders; the tremendous weight of getting it right and doing it well. And while no two days on the bench are alike, the responsibility of correctness is constant.
From the bench, the perspective changes. As an attorney, the focus is on the best outcome for a party. As a judge, the focus is on justice; what is fair and just based the evidence and the law, for all parties. Period. A judge’s personal beliefs and feelings must remain outside the courthouse walls.
Additionally, a judge must see all sides of a case, viewing it from multiple perspectives, impartially, and free from bias and predisposition. This requires thoughtful deliberation, patience and reflection. Consider too that judges must often perform this task without the benefit of attorneys on a case.
And then there is the matter of judicial grace. It has been said that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve. Though not often, judges do have opportunities to dispense judicial grace.
A judge should be at peace with their rulings. It is not the responsibility of a judge to correct the future or the past, but rather to rule justly in the present, on the evidence and law before the Court.
A judge must resist the temptation to “fix” parties. Instead, a judge should strive to deliver to them justice and all that it entails.
Just as important as the result of a judicial proceeding is the manner of the proceeding; that is the judge’s treatment of everyone involved.
While attaining the legally correct answer a judge must display dignity, restraint, appreciation and understanding. Perhaps the goal for a judge is for the attorneys to look forward to appearing in front of them, and the parties looking back believing they received fair process.
Like the new parent, judges need wisdom. And as the newborn enters the world sans instructions, so it is with the phone call that advises an attorney of their election victory or appointment.
Judicial wisdom is born as much from one’s life experiences as it is from casual conversations during lunch with other judges, judicial education courses or a meeting with a fellow judge to address a specific question.
As Sir Isaac Newton once observed, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” So it is with judges. At the courthouse, Newton’s giants are a judge’s colleagues - experienced mentors, sharpened by time, trials, successes and failures.
Finally, like the parent with a newborn, being a judge is the greatest challenge an attorney could have.
Fourth Judicial Circuit Judge John Guy was appointed to the bench in 2015 after 22 years in the State Attorney’s Office.