Here is a book you might want to read if you want to know more about the judicial process. Thirteen trial court judges have written short essays about the hardest decisions they’ve ever made, collected by Russell Canan et al. in a new book called “Tough Cases."
In the past, few judges have publicly shared the thought processes behind their decision making. “Tough Cases” makes for fascinating reading for everyone from armchair attorneys and fans of Law and Order to those actively involved in the legal profession.
Do you remember Terri Schiavo? The first chapter of the book is written by Judge George Greer, the judge who handled that case. The Majority Leader of the U.S. House, Tom DeLay, called the judge a terrorist and a murderer. Gov. Jeb Bush, President George W. Bush and even the Pope tried to influence the judge’s decision. The legal question was to determine what Terri Schiavo would have wanted if she were in a persistent vegetative state (she didn’t have a living will). Her husband wanted to pull the plug, but her parents did not. Now that’s a tough case for a judge to decide!
Judge Gail Chang Bohr of St. Paul, has written a chapter about a child custody case where she had to resist pressure (even from other judges) to accept an agreement of the Mom and the Dad for 50-50 custody. She explains her reasoning for finally giving custody to the grandparents.
Another Minnesota judge, Edward Wilson, volunteered to serve as an international judge in Kosovo after that country declared its independence. The rule of law had evaporated and the United Nations was trying to help Kosovo handle criminal cases, organized crime and rampant bribery. Judge Wilson gives us gripping descriptions of the tough decisions he had to make in three different cases.
One of the most interesting cases was that of Elián González, whose mother died at sea while trying to bring him from Cuba to Florida. Judge Jennifer Bailey writes about the incredible pressure put upon her to block Elián’s return to his father in Cuba. Despite the general law giving custody of a child to a surviving parent who is shown to be a loving and capable parent, Cubans who had fled their country argued that it is child abuse to want one’s son sent back to Cuba, a poverty plagued dictatorship. Gov. Jeb Bush, Tom DeLay and thousands of protesters got involved. Judge Bailey explains how and why she finally made her decision.
Other interesting cases include:
- A judge who had to decide whether a referendum on flat vehicle license taxes was constitutional.
- A judge had to decide if a girl whose mother suffered from Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy should be allowed to have visitation with her daughter.
- A judge who presided over a case where a woman was charged with killing her four children, even though medical examiners couldn't determine a cause of death.
- The judge who decided the case of "Scooter" Libby, when he was charged with making false statements to the FBI, perjury and obstruction of justice.
A retired Minnesota judge from Faribault, Bill Johnson, recommended this book to me, and I’m glad he did. As he put it, the book would be “a good teaching tool for young lawyers to show them both that judges are human and how to argue cases with that humanity in mind.”
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com or jamesmanahan.com.