Judge Who?


(Fact - Based on Memory)




Young attorneys are often admonished to “know your judge” – that is, to know how he or she sees certain issues.  How has he handled similar cases in the past?  Has she spoken on point at continuing legal education classes?  Has he written law review articles or treatises? What are the current policy controversies and where does she stand on these questions?


The wisdom of this advice was brought home to me over and over again when I worked as an Assistant Register of Probate in Norfolk County.  At that time different judges from across the Commonwealth were frequently rotated through the Court.  The clearest example involved one of Norfolk’s own, the Chief Justice of the Probate and Family Court system, Hon. Alfred L. Podolski. 


This particular incident predated the adoption of state-wide child support guidelines.  Guidelines were under consideration at the time; judges had varying viewpoints on the wisdom of implementing them.  Judge Podolski was squarely opposed.


One Monday, I was assisting a judge during his motion session.  This judge happened to be pro-child-support-guidelines. A young attorney, capable and passionate, eager to prevail, appeared before the judge and asked for a specific, rather high amount of child support.  No doubt his client needed the money but the amount he was asking for was well beyond reason based on the income that was available to the opposing party.  The judge patiently and thoroughly explained what we referred to as “The Ginsburg Formula”.  Named after highly regarded Judge Edmund Ginsburg, this formula had been informally adopted by several of the judges in the Probate and Family Court system, but needless to say these adopters were all of a mind that child support guidelines were a good idea.  The young attorney took it all in, nodding with understanding and seemed genuinely appreciative of the lesson.


The very next day I was assigned to assist Chief Justice Podolski at his Tuesday pre-trial session.  The Chief heard these cases in his administrative office rather than a courtroom.  One set at a time, litigants and their attorneys were ushered into his lobby where the judge would question them on the sticky points and disagreements he could expect to hear at trial.  It was a way of crystalizing the issues, ensuring that all parties were prepared for trial, and exploring possibilities for settlement. Wouldn’t you know, after three or four sets of litigants, who should walk in but the same young attorney, appearing this time for a different plaintiff.


Having previewed the case file, I knew that once again child support was an issue.  My face may have remained composed, but internally I had the equivalent of a mouth-dropping, eye-popping stare.  As we all sat around the table, I thought about slipping him a note, “DO NOT MENTION THE GUIDELINES!!!”  Any attempt to do so would have been both obvious and inappropriate.  I was helpless.  I knew I was about to witness a train wreck. 


If mind-to-mind communication was possible based on desire and mental energy, he surely would have received my telecommunication, but such was not to be. The young attorney started in and explained with enthusiasm how he had studied “The Guidelines” and based his request strictly in accordance with them.  He must have mentioned “the guidelines” three or four times in his opening sentences.


I looked at Chief Judge Podolski, a good and patient man, but when he was angry, it always showed on his face and at that moment his face was turning a deep purple.  The poor attorney read the facial signals, and as Judge Podolski’s shade of purple went even darker, the attorney’s enthusiasm waned and his voice became softer and less certain.


We had to lean in to catch the last few words of his argument.  Chief Justice Podolski, still purple, grimaced, “Do I look like a calculator to you?!”  “No, sir,” came the chastened reply.  “I am a judge, not a machine you punch numbers into!”  “Yes, sir,” answered the attorney.  The Chief took a few moments to compose himself.  The purple hue tumbled back down to a paler shade, through deep red, then finally to a manageable shade of dark pink.  When he finally settled back in, the judge gave the litigants and the young attorney an eloquent explanation of his reasoning behind opposing the guidelines.


Twenty years later, that attorney cannot have forgotten these back-to-back hearings and when he advises young lawyers today, he surely tells them to “know the judge!”



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