by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Don’t judge me. You wanna judge me, put on a black gown and get a gavel. Get in line with the rest of them that’s about to judge me. ~ Lil Wayne
As the above quote from noted legal philosopher and Grammy award-winning rapper Wayne Michael Carter, Jr. explains, judges are provided two symbols of authority: a robe and a gavel.
Actually, “provided” is a poor choice of words.1 No one provided them to us. We had to buy them.
Which means we had to choose them. The first decisions a judge makes have nothing to do with CCP Section 437c or the hearsay rule. They are best summed up as “Bell sleeves or straight?” “Zipper or snaps?”
And, of course, the biggest call you make in the first few days after your appointment (or election in my case2) is, “What in hell is the difference between the $79.95 robe and the $499.95 robe?”
But you gotta have one. It’s de rigeur. I mean, there are conventions that apply to every occupation. You wanna sing Haggard . . . you gotta have scuffed-up boots. You wanna play in the NBA . . . you gotta have $1200 customized high-tops. You wanna rule on SLAPP motions . . . get yourself a robe. 3
The better reason for getting a robe is that it’s statutorily required. Government Code Section 68110 provides that, “Every judge of a court of this state shall, in open court during the presentation of causes before him or her, wear a judicial robe, which the judge shall furnish at his or her own expense. The Judicial Council shall, by rule, prescribe the style of such robes.”4 Quite apart from convention, it would be poor form, indeed, to start your judicial career by violating the Government Code.
But the best reason for a robe was explained to me by the Rev. R. A. Taylor, S. J., when I was in college.5 As he put it, “It’s hard to argue with people in black robes. Has been since The Inquisition. That’s why judges and Jesuits never speak without one.”
So there are at least three good reasons—quite apart from my waistline—for me to go into court every day in Johnny Cash’s muumuu.
But the gavel is another thing entirely. A gavel has all the utility of an inflatable dartboard.
Auctioneers use them, legislators use them (both to announce the conclusion of a bit of business), but in forty-seven years of practice, I don’t recall ever seeing another judge use one. I’ve been on the bench for thirty-two years,6 and I’ve had more use for kudzu and cane toads than I have for a gavel.
In fact, the one time—that’s once in thirty-two years—the one time I used one, it was counterproductive, bordering on catastrophic.
I was presiding over a gang murder and had members of both gangs mad-dogging each other from opposite sides of the courtroom. One afternoon, two of the gang-bangers got into a shouting match and immediately jumped into the aisle to escalate their disagreement to shoving and chest-bumping.
My bailiff started up the aisle to break it up. I, highly-trained bench officer that I am, was unable to think of anything to do except yell.
“Hey,” I shouted. “Hey.”7
But then, highly-trained bench officer that I am, I remembered. “I have a gavel.”
And sure enough, there it sat. Right next to my water pitcher. Right where it had sat—untouched except for dusting—ever since my children presented it to me at my swearing-in ceremony seven years earlier.
I grabbed it,8 and began banging on the bench.
My bailiff, startled by a sudden unexpected—indeed unprecedented—“bang, bang, bang”9 behind him, and momentarily distracted from the bangers in front of him, spun around toward me to see what all the noise was.
The jurors, having no experience with gunshots and already nervous about the subject matter of the case and the appearance of the gallery, thought someone was shooting, and several of them dropped to the floor. Someone screamed.
Two gang-bangers—coming to the same conclusion—that somebody was shooting—bolted out the back door of the courtroom into the hallway.
In the hallway, three uniformed police officers were waiting to testify. Hearing shouting and banging noises and seeing two gang members bursting through the doors, two of them scooped up the gangsters, and the third tried to control the goat rodeo that was now streaming out the courtroom doors behind them.
My bailiff, having separated the two instigators of this debacle, was trying to force them to sit down while all the other spectators were trying to jump up and leave.
As you can imagine, it took a while to put a tent over this circus. All in all, we probably lost a half-hour to a matter my bailiff could have sorted out in ten seconds had it not been for the assistance of the highly-trained bench officer and his gavel.
His evaluation of my performance was very kind. As I recall, it went something like, “You were great, Judge . . . but I think next time you can just let me handle it while you keep an eye on the jurors.”10
My gavel now reposes—as it has since that day—in my office. It has not been used since. I do not conduct auctions in chambers, I do not legislate, and when I’ve had nails to pound, I’ve used a hockey puck.
The gavel’s sole purpose now is to remind me of the smiles on Billy and Meggie’s faces when they gave it to me.
Which, come to think of it, is plenty.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.