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Judge's View: The impartial role of judges

One of the more difficult things a judge has to do is listen to statements from crime victims prior to sentencing a defendant. The stories are often gut-wrenching accounts of how their lives have been altered by the events giving rise to the case. As a human being, it is impossible not to be moved by that sort of evidence in a case.

A judge in Michigan recently took victim testimony from more than 150 women over seven days in the case of a doctor convicted of sexually abusing young gymnasts. It is hard for me to imagine the emotional toll that must have taken on everyone in the courtroom who witnessed it.

But as judges, we have legal and ethical obligations to remain neutral. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that due process requires a judge with no actual bias against a litigant, or an interest in the outcome of a case.

More specifically, Minnesota's Code of Judicial Conduct states that "a judge shall not, in the performance of judicial duties, by words or conduct manifest bias or prejudice..." Even facial expressions and body language that could give the appearance of bias must be avoided.

During jury trials, our standard final instructions to the jurors specifically tell them to disregard anything we might have done during the trial that would suggest a particular result. I've never had much of a poker face, but I try very hard not to show emotion while I am on the bench, even if my insides are churning from what I see and hear.

The Michigan judge was clearly affected by all the victim testimony in her courtroom. Media accounts of the sentencing proceedings highlighted comments the judge made about how, if the Constitution did not forbid it, she might allow people to "do to (the defendant) what he did to others" as part of his punishment. These comments, among others, have made the judge something of a folk hero, drawing praise from many people. I can't join in that praise. For me, those types of remarks go too far and undermine the neutral role a judge must keep.

Without excusing the comments, I certainly understand how a judge could get that angry after everything she heard in that case. Several times during my eight years as a judge, I have given myself a "time out" (we call it a "recess" in court) when I felt like I was close to losing my temper.

There are plenty of days when the raw emotion inside a courtroom leaves everyone completely exhausted. If there is a judge who hasn't had the occasional bad day, or had that one case that pushes their buttons, we have yet to meet. Yet we all know that part of our job as judges is to maintain the dignity of the court system, and it's hard to do that once you lose your cool.

Victim testimony is important. It helps the victim heal. It is important for the defendant to hear. By law, it is something a judge must consider in determining an appropriate sentence. But we judges can't cross the line to become an advocate for one side over the other.

Judge Dale Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Hermantown with their four children.