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Reflections from the Bench: holiday judging stories

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In the spirit of togetherness and sharing, we made Reflections from the Bench a group effort this month, asking judges to share their stories about judging over the holidays. We received more than a dozen stories, including one mirroring the plot of Miracle on 34th Street. Many other judges shared stories about releasing inmates over the holidays—some with positive outcomes, others without.

No ‘Miracle’ in Texas

“A decade or so ago I heard a mental health case a few days before Christmas in which the subject of the proceeding claimed to be Santa Claus. Primarily based on the weight of the psychiatric evidence, I granted the commitment. On Christmas morning I did have a slight bit of apprehension when gathering the morning’s newspaper. Fortunately for me there were no photos of red-eyed children standing near empty stockings and stories about Santa being detained by a Grinch of a judge.”

Hon. Rory R. Olsen, Probate Court No. 3, Harris County, Texas

Manger maybe, jail no

“One time many years ago I was doing misdemeanor first appearances, and it was December 24th. At the end of court we did arrest warrants for the no-shows. The first was for a fellow with the first name Joe. I ordered the bench warrant and did a few more cases, and then we got to a woman named Mary. I ordered the warrant and then, as an aside, the clerk noted that she was the wife of Joe, the previous warrant. I asked her to pull the files and we noted his full name was Joseph. I said, ‘Pull both warrants!’ When asked why, I said, ‘There is no way I am issuing bench warrants for Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve’. We pulled the warrants and I reissued them in January.”

Hon. David W. Nelson (Ret.), Northwest Judicial District Court, North Dakota

‘You just lost an election’

‘December 24, 2003, I was on the criminal court bench just 21 days into my judicial tenure. The older man before me was appearing on a probation violation for his third DUI conviction. He was accompanied by his son. The proposed sentence was one year in jail. He asked if he could report for his sentence on December 26, so he could spend Christmas with his family. His 34-year-old son assured me he would get his dad back to court and would prevent him from driving or drinking. I agreed.

“Leaving the bench, my colleague told me bluntly, ‘You just lost an election. Your defendant will go out and kill someone on Christmas Day, and in the headlines you will be the judge who let that happen.’ I was devastated. I confess that I prayed.

“Arriving in the parking lot at 8:15 a.m. on December 26, tears came to my eyes as I saw the man and his son walking across the parking lot toward the jail. It was an answer to a prayer.”

Hon. Mary Mertens James, 3rd Judicial District Circuit Court, Oregon

Insufficient funds of holiday spirit  

“During my very first term of office, I inherited a case involving a defendant who passed a series of bad checks. At his initial appearance, he had no problem telling me his troubles: He had all these bills to pay, he was behind on rent, and so on. He then told me his wife was pregnant and he was the father of a disabled 2-year-old. He even pulled the hospital pictures out of his wallet with his son in a hospital bed, tubes going in and out of him everywhere.

“I felt like I had no choice, though. His case had gone on for months with a number of victims of his bad checks. So I sentenced him to 30 days in jail—my first incarceration order as a judge. I knew I had made the correct judicial decision, but it still haunted me. I was sullen about his story when my wife (also an attorney) said, ‘Well, why don’t you give him a one- or two-day furlough for Christmas?’ What a great idea! I thought. I would let him out at 5 p.m. Christmas Eve and require that he return to the jail by noon the day after Christmas. I informed the local police chief of my furlough plans and called back the wife to let her know the good news.”

“She paused after I told her, then yelled, ‘Why did you do that? I’ve already made plans to be away!’

“I was … I’m not sure what I was. In the end, I told her I was still going to release him and she would have to decide on her own what her plans would be.

But that, it turns out, wasn’t the worst of it.

“On Christmas Eve, my family and I were on our way to my mother-in-law’s house. There was a little snow falling as we got to the downtown area, all lit up with Christmas lights. The mood was festive. I saw a white stretch limo—unusual for the small town where I lived. I thought, ‘How nice! Friends and family really enjoying the holiday!’

“Fast forward to January 2nd. I get a call from the police chief.

“‘You sitting down?’ he asked. ‘You know that guy you let out on a furlough over Christmas? Well, it seems that when he found out about it, he hired a stretch limo to pick him up at the jail. He then picked up a bunch of his buddies and wound his way to Dubuque, Iowa, for a two-day drunk.’

“‘Tell me you’re joking,’ I said.

“‘No joke,’ the chief said. ‘I even saw the limo come through Evansville on Christmas Eve as I was walking to my car after work. A bunch of people inside a gorgeous white stretch limousine, and they all waved at me. I thought ‘Well, there’s a group having fun celebrating Christmas.’”

“It had to be the furlough guy.

“I didn’t think it could get any more embarrassing. But then the chief said, ‘Anyway, the reason I’m calling is to let you know that he paid for the limo with a bad check.’”

Hon. Thomas J. Alisankus, Evansville/Union Municipal Court, Wisconsin

Down the courthouse chimney

“The holiday season is a time of year when dysfunctional families really dysfunction. In my juvenile drug court, I try all the motivating skills I have to help these kids change their addictive and bad behavior for a healthy way of living life. As Christmas nears, I tell all the participants that all I want for Christmas is a week of every one of them advancing [in the court program]. If that happens, we can have a special celebration with gifts.

“When court is called, I enter the courtroom as Santa. I have a list of who has been ‘naughty or nice.’ All who have been naughty have been dealt with separately, but many years we have 100 percent participation—everyone is on the nice list. Community partners donate nice gifts for the kids, and some years we’ve had turkey donated for each juvenile and their families.

“Many participants later in life have told me it was a very memorable Christmas experience. Just this past week I passed a former participant on the street and with a big smile on his face he said drug court saved his life.”

Hon. Bryan K. Murray, 6th Judicial District Court, Idaho

All the Whos with parking violations

“My favorite story about judging during December is the person who appealed a parking ticket he received while attending a holiday pageant with his family. He said returning to the car and finding the ticket ruined the holidays for his family. As an exhibit, he offered a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Anonymous judge

Mmm, jail

“[During the holiday season] I once had the privilege of conducting what the inmates at the county detention center referred to as ‘freedom court.’ The docket consisted of those who were not considered dangerous and were incarcerated waiting for trial as a result of failures to appear or serving sentences for nonviolent offenses. Starting in October, I would start receiving letters asking for ‘the honor’ of appearing in freedom court.

“The exceptions to this were two brothers who basically lived on the street but professed to really like—indeed crave–the jail chef’s famous turkey and ham Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. So they would inevitably try to get themselves arrested, usually for disorderly conduct. They would usually succeed, and I would ask them when they wanted to check in and check out. A two-day stay (the leftovers apparently were also good) was usually requested and sentenced after a guilty plea.

“One year one of the brothers threw a rock through a storefront window after making sure no one was in a position to be hurt. When I asked why he did that, he said the policed refused to cooperate with him and arrest him for lesser behavior. He later asked whether he could sue the police for not arresting him earlier.”

Hon. Steven I. Platt (Ret.), 7th Judicial District Court, Maryland

Making a difference

About 15 years ago on a Thanksgiving morning, as I was working in the kitchen preparing for our feast, my phone rang. The caller said he was the father of a man I had sent to jail. He had been in and out of trouble for a while and causing his family a lot of worry. I had sentenced him to six months just a few weeks before. The father asked me if I could or would consider letting him out for Thanksgiving dinner. He said his wife was distraught and he wanted to see if this was even possible. He promised he would personally pick him up and take him back to the jail after dinner.

“I had never done anything like that, but we do have a work release that allows prisoners to leave jail for their jobs and return when their shift is over. I decided it was the right thing to do, and we settled on the time for him to be picked up and taken back to the jail. I went to my office and prepared the release and commitment. I didn’t think any more about it.

“Months later while in the grocery store, a woman came up to me and introduced herself as the mother of that man. She was so thankful, and to this day when I see her she stops and talks, and she has even told other people, ‘This magistrate understands people.’

“I just did what I thought was the right thing to do, but it made a difference in someone’s life. I always think of that family at the holidays, and I always try to remember that every defendant that I see has a family.”

Hon. Tammy F. Marple, 15th Judicial Circuit Court, West Virginia

Three things…

“I have three memories: one of a colleague who every year, a day or two before Christmas, would go to jail to meet with the various defendants he had placed there. He would give them a ‘get out of jail free’ card, and those individuals were released from jail with the intent on his part that they would have a good and peaceable Christmas before returning to jail. [My second memory] is in response to a judge whom I appeared before in private practice who would set many court hearings the week following Christmas day. I have always not set any cases for hearing that week, except when asked by a lawyer, so that the lawyers can be free to enjoy the holidays. Lastly, I’ve never felt sorry for those I have jailed and are in jail over the holidays. If they want to enjoy Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, they should not commit crimes, and I tell them that. Of course, I am not fooled by my words into thinking they will be good and not miss any future Christmases.”

Hon. Robert B. Denhardt, 9th Judicial District Court, Wyoming

A defendant gets the last word in

“It was the day before Thanksgiving and a sentencing was set for a person who violated his probation by committing a new felony. When asked if he had anything to say, he replied ‘If you would have locked me up instead of releasing me on probation, I wouldn’t have committed this new offense.’ I then said I won’t make that mistake again and sentenced him to the maximum, 10 to 15 years in prison. He just had to have the last word and said as he turned to be taken to jail, ‘I hope you choke on your turkey tomorrow.’ I had no response to that.”

Hon. William J. Caprathe, Bay County Circuit Court, Michigan

’Tis not the season

I have been on the bench for about 16 years and have never turned down any type of case. I am in a smaller court, so we basically do it all, from traffic trials to capital murder cases. However, I have informed my docketing clerk that I am not available to do landlord/tenant eviction cases the week of Christmas. I simply cannot hear that type of case during the Christmas holiday. People around here seem to understand.”

Hon. Lindi L. Baker, 14th Judicial District Circuit Court, Oregon

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