Tough Cases: Judges Tell the Stories of Some of the Hardest Decisions They’ve Ever Made
Book Review: Tough Cases: Judges Tell the Stories of Some of the Hardest Decisions They’ve Ever Made. Edited by Russell Canan, Gregory Mize, and Frederick Weisberg. (The New Press, 2018)
What makes a judge tick? As its Introduction promises, this offbeat anthology gives readers a rare look into some of the “times in a judicial career when a judge has to wrestle with a problem so complex, or so emotionally draining, as to test the fortitude and impartiality of even the most competent and experienced jurist.” It’s an enjoyable read, providing a little known judicial angle on the workings of the American trial system.
The collection examines a good range of cases. Some are “torn from the headlines,” including the Terri Schiavo “right to die” case, the Elián Gonzalez Cuban refugee case, and the Scooter Libby CIA leak case. In each of these, the trial judge gives his or her personal insights into the challenges of grappling with hard questions in a charged political atmosphere. Other chapters explore cases of no particular notoriety, but these are some of the most gripping discussions in the book.
For instance, in a fascinating discussion, a Washington D.C. trial judge recounts his struggle to follow the law in a criminal case when it looked like the jury was about to return a verdict that would require a harsh mandatory sentence—plainly unjust under the facts. Some judicial maneuvering undertaken with the purest motives nearly ended up working the very injustice the judge had sought to avoid and left him concluding he should have had a little more faith in the jury. In a heartbreaking discussion, another judge describes the trial of a mother accused of murdering her four daughters and living alone with their decaying remains until her landlord discovered them in the course of evicting the mother for nonpayment of rent; the trial took an unusual turn when the defense attorneys challenged the mother’s competence to refuse to present a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. And in a chapter of local interest, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michelle M. Ahnn recounts her transition from seasoned public defender to rookie judge presiding over a criminal misdemeanor calendar—a period in which every case was a hard case as she worked to remake her outlook from that of advocate to neutral arbiter.
Throughout, several themes predominate: Judging is a solitary pursuit, sometimes isolating and lonely; good judges feel keenly the responsibility to do justice; and even the best judges make mistakes.
According to the Introduction, the overall aim of the collection “is to demystify judicial decision making and to make the process accessible to ordinary people who would not otherwise get a ringside seat and who may assume, understandably, that judges can simply do whatever they want.” It’s largely successful, although some of the judges’ narratives presuppose a familiarity with legal language and how trials work that may limit the book’s appeal to lay readers. Nevertheless, this is an edifying read both for lawyers and for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of our justice system.