International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International judicial Academy of the International Law Institute, Washington, D.C.
with circulation assistance from the American Society of International Law

Spring 2017 Issue



Bad Judges - Good Judges

Dr. James G. Apple


By: James G. Apple, Editor-in-Chief, International Judicial Monitor

During my time in law practice covering 25 years, I was involved in a trial situation that clearly featured a “bad judge.” The circumstances were these: I was scheduled to go to trial on a Monday morning, defending a client who was sued as a result of a personal injury accident. In the state where I practiced judges were  elected. There is in this state no qualification for becoming a judicial candidate to be one of the state judges (as opposed to being a federal judge) other than being of a certain age (35 for the major trial court) and being a member in good  standing of the state bar association. In this particular instance my case was to be tried before a judge who had only recently been elected to the trial bench. My case was his first trial. I knew from my experience as a trial lawyer that he had not been an experienced trial lawyer before his election – in fact I learned later that he had no trial experience before his elevation to his judgeship. So neither I nor opposing counsel knew what to expect on that Monday morning.

My worse fears were realized as I entered the courtroom and placed my notes and other trial materials on the defense counsel table. Opposing counsel had also arrived; the judge had not. Eventually, after a wait of some ten to fifteen minutes, the clerk announced “all rise” as the judge entered the courtroom from a side door.

The trial of a case where I practiced follows a specific pattern and procedure, because it is conducted in the manner of a common law trial, uniform in the common law states of the U.S. (one state – Louisiana, follows the civil law system). The clerk calls the case to be heard. Inquiry is made of trial counsel if they are ready for trial. If positive answers are received, the clerk calls a certain number of potential jurors to be seated in courtroom for interrogation by the judge and trial counsel about their qualifications (the voir dire). The judge and counsel then select the jurors who will hear the case (usually 12). The case then proceeds to the actual trial, with trial counsel first presenting opening statements.

In the particular case I am describing, the judge walked to his chair behind the bench, sat down, and began to review some papers. The courtroom was quiet. The judge made no move to begin the trial process. After five minutes of complete silence, the judge finally looked up and said to me and the other counsel, “Well counsel, get started.” It was obvious that the judge did not even know how to open and begin a trial. I talked briefly with opposing counsel, and we decided that we would have to proceed to trial without the judge’s participation and cooperate to complete the trial. And that is what happened.

The performance of this particular judge did not improve much with time. He should never have been allowed to become a judge. He was a bad judge. Fortunately in the state where I practiced there were and are not too many bad judges. But there were some. Unfortunately bad judges can give the whole justice system a bad name. The same situation is probably true in the state courts of the other 49 states in the U.S.

Several years ago I met for coffee at a local Washington hotel a lawyer from the Netherlands who was interested in developing a judicial training seminar for some judges from Indonesia. At the end of our conversation he presented me with a small book as a token of appreciation for my talking with him. The title of the book was A Short Book of Bad Judges by Graeme Williams QC, a barrister in the United Kingdom. It was published in 2013 in London. I recently had occasion to read it. It is indeed a short book – only 71 pages, consisting of a prologue, an introduction, eight chapters, and an epilogue. The chapters contained mostly anecdotes about the actions of ten U.K. judges whom the author considered to be bad judges. The account of the actions of each of the ten judges (nine men and one woman) does provide a basis for analysis of their misdeeds and why the author included them in the book. The reader can extract some idea of the kinds of activities that make a judge bad, and in the course of these analyses, one can also gain some instruction about what constitutes a good judge.

Barrister Williams notes in the Prologue that there are plenty of books about good judges, but none in


England and Wales about bad ones, an observation that serves as a justification for writing this particular book. He also notes that there are “quite a few” books about bad judges in the U.S. I would qualify that remark by saying that there are “some books” in the U.S. about bad judges (e.g. The Benchwarmers by Joseph Goulden, 1974), but the number of books about good and great U.S judges far outnumber bad judge books.

There would be much effort and not much to be gained by going into detail about the anecdotes about the ten U.K. judges selected by Barrister Williams for comment. The real usefulness of the anecdotes, as noted above, is that they allow the reader to develop at least some sense of the traits of bad judges, and consequently a sense of the traits that make a judge good.

Traits of a good judge that can be derived from reading the book are:

The good judge should be patient.

The good judge should be even tempered and avoid intemperance and arrogance.

The good judge should be a good listener.

The good judge must allow latitude for counsel in the interrogation process and not interfere with the counsel’s questioning unless it is overbearing (applicable to common law legal systems).

The good judge should be learned in the law and approach his or her judicial duties with appropriate seriousness and solemnity.

The good judge should possess a strong sense of integrity, honesty and trustworthiness.

The good judge should demonstrate courtesy in communications with other judges, lawyers, and litigants.

The author suggests in the book that probably the most common traits that determine if a particular judge is good or bad are arrogance and impatience. As a former practicing trial lawyer, I can fully agree with that observation. Most of the bad judges with whom I came into contact in my practice displayed those unfortunate characteristics.

There are some valuable issues and principles that the author emphasizes in Bad Judges, apart from identifying traits of a bad judge and qualities of a good one. The first issue relates to the matter of what can be done to insure the selection and retention of judges who will turn out to be good ones rather than bad ones.  A passage from the Prologue of the book about the fact that now most U.K. judges are good judges states:

The position here today is no doubt the result of our modern, and on the whole very sensible and worth-while practice of appointing  “new” permanent judges only after they have attended judicial training, have sat as a judge in a part-time, temporary post before appointment, and have performed in that capacity well enough to justify long-term judicial office.

This comment points to the inadequacy in many legal systems of the method of selecting judges and of determining whether specific judicial candidates have the traits to be a good judge. Many states in the United States are burdened with this particular inadequacy, particularly those that are elected. The above quote suggests a recipe to correct this inadequacy.

Another valuable insight is included in part of one of the sentences in the Epilogue of the book: “[T]he quality of the judiciary, and the degree of public confidence in it, must be among the most crucial features of a modern democracy.”

A final observation, contained in the last sentence in the book, is an important one: “There is of course no ground for complacency [in assuring that judges are impartial and good]. In our area of inquiry, as in so many others, the price of justice is eternal vigilance. Bad judges, however few there may be, will always be a stain on the public perception of Justice.”

ASIl & International Judicial AcademyInternational Judicial Monitor
© 2017 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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