Federal district judges are very often described as the typical deciders, whether written options or at the bench. But sometimes situation gets heated like when a different question arises, the parties disagree with each other and the answers are not so obvious.
Thus they have to rely on the most rarely discussed resource: the jurist to jurist lifeline.
Around one dozen judges were interviewed in Manhattan’s Federal district Court and the results show that every single one of them had telephoned colleagues when legal questions puzzled them.
“I can tell you that everyone calls associates for advice, mainly when we get gnarly jury notes,” said the Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska, a former member of the bench from more than two decades.
The practice is quite longstanding: Judge Pierre N. Leval, judge at the federal appeals court also said that when he became a trial judge, he asked aassociate, “what to do when you’re baffled?”
The colleague wrote four digits on a scrap of paper and handed over to him, it was the phone extension for Judge Edward Winfield, a genius on the court.
“Put it on your desk in the robing room and call him when you’re stuck. We all do it,” his associate said.
In the recent trials happening in Manhattan, Judge Katherine B. Forrest presided against the government on the acceptability of a specific document, but later on after a break, she said she had changed her view.
“I spoke to three colleagues — judges here,” she added.
Her defense lawyer condemned, but Judge Forrest stipulated that it was important that she get her facts right, and portraying on the expertise and experience of fellow federal judges was sometimes useful “when one is pressed for time in dealing with these kinds of issues.”
“Indeed, a lot of us call each other,” she added. “People call me a lot, including many senior judges.”
On appeals courts, where all the judgments are typically made in groups, collaboration is the rule. But it’s different for trial judges they are considered as solitary actors, the captains answerable only to a higher court. This makes a trial judge calling for advice seems unusual for the outsiders.
In another of the recent trial before Judge Forrest, the defendant was Ross W. Ulbricht, he was accused for running the Silk Road website for drug dealers selling illegal drugs. After the judge said that she had consulted with the three colleagues, Mr. Ulbricht’s lawyer, Joshua L. Dratel disagreed with her approach
“I understand the value of consulting and all of that, but, I mean, the court ruled — it’s not the Court of Appeals,” Mr. Dratel said, he also added, “The court is here.”
In one of the interviews, Mr. Dratel elaborated. “As an advocate,” he said, “you always like to be able to argue your position directly to the decider, and if other people are contributing to the decision, I’m robbed of that opportunity.”
Judge Forrest denied to respond to Mr. Dratel’s comment as the case was still pending. But speaking generally, she said that the only motive to consult the fellow judges is that she tries to seek for different prospective, “specifically to ensure that I have examined an issue from all angles.” She added.
“I value my colleagues’ input,” she said, adding that in the previous cases, no judge made a decision “other than me.”
The judges interviewed said that they would not seek any kind of guidance from an outside source, like a professor, a jurist or some other court. However, a legal ethics professor seeking help from a judge from the same court about a question of law is permitted by the judicial conduct rules.