From the President: Bench and Bar

From the President Lisa M. Wayne October 2000 5 Bench and Bar I have never been shy when it comes to shaking things up and doing things a bit differently. During the summer, I thought about the writing of this president’s column as well as the topics I wanted to discuss. Nothing says I have to pr

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

I have never been shy when it comes to shaking things up and doing things a bit differently. During the summer, I thought about the writing of this president’s column as well as the topics I wanted to discuss. Nothing says I have to present the president’s remarks in the same format month after month, I told myself. 

From time to time, I will use this column as a vehicle to introduce you to a sprinkling of individuals who are part of the criminal justice system. Starting this project by interviewing a judge is a good way to highlight NACDL’s support of judicial independence. This brief conversation also puts a face on one of the people who wears a black robe and dispenses justice. It demonstrates that a judge’s spirit can resonate with our own.

There are times when judges are our heroes, and there are times when they are the bane of our existence. They are heroes when they force prosecutors to comply with the letter and spirit of Brady. We don’t like them as much when they admit evidence from a search we view as unlawful.

A defense lawyer’s chance to ensure a fair criminal justice process is hopelessly doomed when the presiding judge is institutionally inhibited from providing an impartial forum. Yet the flood of money into judicial elections breeds exactly that kind of institutional inhibition. The powerful interests that try to sway a judicial election, often motivated by corporate interests that have nothing to do with criminal justice, inevitably exploit the rulings judges make in criminal cases. Third parties look for that one case in which a judge appropriately vindicated a fundamental constitutional principle by ruling in favor of a defendant, and they turn that decision into a ridiculous, destructive caricature. We should develop a toolkit to help defense lawyers seek a judge’s recusal when, during the judge’s election campaign, the judge committed himself or herself to make pro-prosecution rulings or impose harsh sentences.

At the end of the day, criminal defense lawyers want fair trials in courts of law. Arbitrary justice is unacceptable. Of course, we all want to win our cases. Whether judges are ruling for us or against us, however, the defense bar realizes that a fair trial in a court of law is the goal. Legal scholarship, good judgment, and impartiality are the hallmarks of a good judge. In a few recent judicial elections, special interest money overwhelmed the election process. The organized bar has a duty to defend the independence of the judiciary when judges are attacked because of a particular ruling or attacked in election ads sponsored by third-party groups. Judges should not be hesitant to enforce the constitutional rights they swore to uphold.

When I started thinking about NACDL’s commitment to judicial independence, I thought about all the independent-minded judges I know who are former defense lawyers. The Honorable Carmen Garza is one of the judges who came to mind. For the past five years, she has been a federal magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. She is one of our own who continues to balance judicial intellect, compassion, and independence.

President Lisa Wayne (LW): What are the qualities of a good judge?
Judge Carmen Garza (CG): Trial experience, compassion, decisiveness, and willingness to make tough decisions.

LW: What is the best thing about the American court system?
CG: The jury system.

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LW: What has been our court system’s biggest failure?
CG: I think it is the failure to provide significant rehabilitation services to individuals, especially those with drug and alcohol problems.

LW: Do you consider yourself a role model?
CG: Yes, absolutely. I speak to grade school kids regularly. They are always surprised that the judge is a woman. Then they are surprised that I am a Hispanic woman. I tell them that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up.

LW: Why did you decide to study law?
CG: I come from a family of lawyers and judges. I was an art major when I started college. I decided to become a lawyer when I worked as a legal secretary and saw how the lawyer I worked for was able to help people.

LW: What is the one thing you would like to change about the criminal justice system?
CG: That the U.S. Attorney’s Office has the sole discretion to determine whether to pursue the death penalty.

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LW: Has anything surprised you?
CG: The contentious nature of civil cases.

LW: What are a couple of things that lawyers do that drive you crazy?
CG: They repeat the favorable testimony of a witness, especially in preliminary hearings. They are not familiar with federal court practice, both in criminal and civil cases. They are not prepared.

LW: What is something that a lawyer can do in the courtroom that will immediately impress you?
CG: Discuss a disputed issue with opposing counsel.

LW: What is the most difficult decision you have ever made during a trial?
CG: The most difficult decision was to hold an attorney in contempt in opening statement.

LW: Do you believe that women in the legal profession are judged according to different standards than men?
CG: Absolutely. I think women have to work harder and are judged more harshly than men. I also think they have distinct advantages.

LW: Which U.S. Supreme Court case has had the biggest impact — positive or negative — on the rights of defendants in criminal cases?
CG: United States v. Booker has had the biggest positive impact on criminal defendants.

LW: What do you find most rewarding about being a judge?
CG: There are real opportunities to make a difference in people’s lives.

LW: Do you miss being down in the trenches practicing law?
CG: I miss it every day. I loved my work. It was very rewarding.