Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

December 2005

Exercising Judgment

Like a lot of people’s, my experience with judges is limited. In my case, there was Judge Crowley in Enid, Okla., who sat down front with Tim and Karen, his kids, at church on Sunday. He was big, like, imposing.

My friend Donnie O’Neil’s father was a lawyer, and sometimes after Mass, Donnie’s dad and the judge would talk with each other on the sidewalk. The farmers talked to the farmers and the men who wore ties to work talked to others like themselves. The women, my mom included, talked with each other. But nobody except Donnie’s dad talked to the judge. So, naturally, I thought judges were pretty tough to get to know.

I was probably 8 or 9 years old then, but I never felt  a great need to change my mind. The whole deal these past few months with the federal Supreme Court retirements, vacancies, nominations, hearings, withdrawn nominations, 30-second spots, threatened filibusters and talk of nuclear options seems to confirm my preadolescent thinking: Everyone, including senators on the Judiciary Committee, find it pretty tough to get to know judges.

I did get to talk a bit with a judge once. It was at a high school reunion, and the judge was married to my classmate, Beverly. I actually didn’t know Beverly very well, but we ended up at the same table for Sunday brunch, so naturally, you all talk. There weren’t any lawyers at the table, so I decided to ask the judge a question.

“What” I asked “was it like to preside at your first trial?”

He told this great story about how nervous he was. It was a trial without jury, so he was responsible for the verdict as well as keeping order in the court, gavel-banging, sidebars, shushing lawyers and, if he reached a verdict for the plaintiff, imposing a sentence. He wanted to get a real close look at witnesses to better gauge their truthfulness, so he inched forward. The physics of a new leather chair in contact with first-worn judicial robes took over. Slowly, almost regally, the judge slid out of sight like a setting sun. As he struggled to climb from under his bench, some stared, most looked away, and all restrained their risibilty.

We, on the other hand, all laughed real hard as he went on about being tangled in his robe.

I hope Sen. Leahy and his committee gain as much insight from their questions as I got from mine.