For pro se litigants, there’s a point in every case where you begin to think your judge is a little cuckoo for cocoa puffs. It’s normal, something we can usually brush off.
But what do you do with a judge who’s really and truly off his meds?
It happened in the case of Gloria Romero-Perez, a woman on trial in Texas for child trafficking.
Or rather, it happened to her jury after they informed the judge they had a verdict.
Prior to bringing them back to court, he strolled into the jury room to share that God had told him the defendant was innocent. In fact, God had told him to let the jury know.
Jurors must have asked themselves why God hadn’t let them know directly, as guilt or innocence was theirs to decide, not the judge’s. It was a good question, since they’d come to a different conclusion — finding the defendant guilty as charged — which they promptly announced in open court.
Luckily for the citizens of Texas, the judge recused himself from the sentencing phase of trial, and Ms. Perez received the 25 years in prison she deserved.
But did you hear about the judge who tortured a defendant during trial, in open court? When Terry Lee Morris didn’t answer a judge’s questions to his satisfaction, the judge shocked him with 50,000 volts of electricity via a stun belt affixed to his legs — three separate times.
The Texas appellate court decided Morris was unable to participate in his defense under those conditions (gee, ya think?). He was guilty as hell according to all the evidence, but his conviction had to be overturned (the ruling is a must read).
Let’s not forget the Nashville traffic judge with a standing offer to cancel your ticket in exchange for sexual favors. When word got out, he stole money from the court’s drug treatment program to bribe his victims into silence.
What is it about wearing the black robe that leads judges to believe they can get away with these things? Are they simply worse than the rest of us? Are they corrupted by the power they hold? Is it the absence of real consequences when they’re caught?
I’ve come to believe it’s a complete lack of accountability. We have the right to appeal crazy rulings, for sure. But that right is often as ephemeral as the right to represent oneself in court. We see how well that works unassisted.
We’ve all had nightmares about using the wrong procedures in the trial court, or using them incorrectly. Appellate procedures are even more complex and bizarre.
For example, say you’ve lost your case and decided to appeal, but your trial judge is moving ahead to execute the judgment against you. You’re about to lose custody of your child, or have your wages garnished, or be evicted from your home. You can ask the appellate court to “stay” proceedings in the lower court, but did you know you have to ask the lower court first?
That’s right. You’re required to ask the court that just ruled against you to wait while you appeal the judgment. What’s worse, you have to show that you’re likely to win on appeal, that you’re likely to prove them wrong!
Yes, everyone agrees it’s ridiculous. But if you don’t take that step, the appellate court won’t even consider your request to stay the judgment. Rules like this allow judges to be as crazy as they want to be. It’s a recipe for Judges Gone Wild.
Is it necessary to say #NotAllJudges? By and large, the judges I’ve encountered have been biased but not crazy. Some have even shown empathy and really tried to understand my novel arguments.
What if all our judges acted like this one?
We’d have a lot more trust in our courts, that’s for sure. And we’d probably need to appeal their rulings much less frequently than we do now.
Like trial courts across the country, appellate courts are feeling the brunt of pro se appeals. And pro se litigants are having no more success than we do in trial courts. Here’s a suggestion to clear the backlog — Trim the rules of appellate procedure. Review them for common sense. Make them transparent.
Here’s another one — Write opinions in plain language so parties citing to legal authority don’t have to read between the lines to see the rationale for an appellate decision.
Too many judges lack accountability because they know pro se litigants can’t effectively navigate the appeals process. That needs to change.
Have you appealed a crazy judgment? Did appellate rules make sense? Share in the comments below.