Friday, May 24, 2013

"When The Judge Gets Cross-Examined": guest post by Tim Fall

Today I'm very pleased to have a guest post from my online friend Tim Fall, who blogs at Just One Train Wreck After Another.  

To quote from his blog's "About" section:  "Tim is a California native who changed his major three times, colleges four times, and took six years to get a Bachelor’s degree in a subject he’s never been called on to use professionally. Married for 25 years with two kids (one in college and one just graduated, woo-hoo!) his family is constant evidence of God’s abundant blessings in his life. He and his wife live in Northern California."  

What this description doesn't tell you is that he's also a witty person with a love for the Bible and a gift for encouraging others.  I've been following his blog for several months now; I hope you'll take the time to check it out too.  If post titles like "Break Like the Wind, People!" and "Partying With Hookers -- Bring It On!" don't attract your interest, I don't know what will.

When I asked him to be my guest, I suggested he might participate in a Q&A with me about issues related to justice.  Not only did he readily agree, but he sent me the answers to my questions within about six hours of my asking them!  I hope you enjoy this interview (it includes some links to other posts Tim's written on related issues as well).

When The Judge Gets Cross-Examined

How would you define justice in legal terms and in God's terms?

Legally, justice is the pursuit of the best decision allowed under the law. If there’s a better result but the law does not allow it, then the law governs the result and we consider it just even if not ideal. (I wrote a bit on this here.)

God’s justice is complex because it cannot be viewed standing by itself. It must be considered as intertwined with humility and mercy (Micah 6:8), and as leading to the vindication of the few even if it means letting the multitudes off the hook. (Genesis 18:16-33.) Ultimately, that’s what Jesus did. He humbly performed an act of supreme mercy (Philippians 2:8), and did so in order to justify – or vindicate – some. (Luke 13:22-30.)

We hear people refer (sometimes disparagingly, sometimes admiringly) to "American-style justice." As a Canadian I'm wondering:  is there a unique American style of justice?

If we do have one, it is a product of our shared heritage with many other countries that benefit from the English Common Law tradition. This gives rise to many attributes of American-style justice, such as: a commitment to the rule of law and not rule by the whim of those in power; trial by jury for any charge that can lead to jail; public trials in open courtrooms.

You don’t need a vivid imagination to think of countries where these are not the norm. In fact, in some countries if you told people on the street that here in America judges asked citizens to come to the courthouse and make decisions for them, some people in foreign lands wouldn’t even understand the concept. They live in countries where the government doesn’t ask its people anything; the government tells its people what to do.

I’ll take American-style justice. (Here’s something I wrote on this a while back.)

Do you think the general public has appropriate expectations of what the justice system can accomplish? For example, we often hear people refer to victims' desire to "find closure" or "learn what really happened" through the justice process. Are these expectations realistic? What do you think the justice system is intended to accomplish, ultimately?

When I speak to civic groups and in school classrooms I try to get the point across that we have a legal system, not a justice system. If someone thinks that a court case will bring closure, I don’t think that’s any more realistic an expectation from the courts than some other part of life. And if they think they will find all the answers in a trial, I have to say that has never happened in my courtroom; I always know that there is more going on than has come out at trial. I think these shortcomings are functions of the fact that only God knows everything (Hebrews 4:13), including what is in a person’s heart. (Psalm 44:21.)

The legal system is designed to provide a neutral forum for the resolution of disputes, whether civil or criminal. Anything else is beyond its abilities.

I recently heard a speaker talk about punitive vs. restorative justice: as she saw it, the former asks "What crime was committed? Who did it? What punishment should they receive?" while the latter asks "Who was hurt? What do they need? Who is responsible for helping them get that need met?" Do you think this is a helpful distinction, and do you think the justice system has room for both of these perspectives?

Punitive justice is not only aimed at punishing the wrongdoing, but also preventing it by showing others what will happen when a crime is committed. (See Romans 13:5 for Paul’s insights on it.) Likewise, restorative justice has a broader aim than restoring the victim. It looks to restore the criminal to society as well. The truth and justice commissions in post-apartheid South Africa are a good example of how to do this right. (Here’s a piece on fairness from my archives.)

Do we have room for both restorative and punitive justice models? Probably, but I’m not sure society is willing to pay for both. Neither comes cheap separately, and together they would present a whopper of a tax bill.

Can you explain a little bit about the court you're involved with and what its place, and your place, is in the larger legal system?

In California the trial courts are courts of general jurisdiction. That means every kind of case you can think of under state law is filed in my courthouse: criminal, civil, family, juvenile, probate, etc. I’ve handled them all, but right now my case-load is criminal. I hear felonies, from the early stages through trial and on to post trial hearings like sentencing or probation violations. People who don’t like my decisions can appeal them, and above the Court of Appeal is the state Supreme Court. I’ve had cases go all the way up and then come all the way back down to me.

Mine is a small courthouse, by California standards. We have ten judges, and I am the second most senior. When I first started back in 1995, I would spend a lot of time on the phone calling other judges – either here or those I’d met from around the state – for advice on cases. A few years ago I noticed I was getting a bunch of phone calls from judges who wanted to run their cases by me, and I asked myself, “Why are they all calling me?” Then it hit me: “Because you’re an old guy, Tim!”

One of the things I do as a judge besides preside over cases is in the field of judicial ethics and education. I’ve been on a statewide ethics committee for a dozen years now, and teaching judicial ethics almost as long. Our committee operates a hotline for judges with ethics questions under our state’s Code of Judicial Conduct, and we get better than 400 calls a year. In the classes I teach (and I’ve taught hundreds of judges across the state over the years), we cover the types of issues judges face both on and off the bench (because those ethical regulations don’t stop applying when I walk down the courthouse steps). I am glad to serve in a state where judges have such a high commitment to acting right. (I wrote this on judges and ethical conduct.)

Do the people you see day in, day out seem to respect the legal system? Presumably you respect it, but are there ever times you get cynical? If so, how do you deal with that; and if not, why do you think that is?

Most of the people I see in and out of court seem to respect the system. Sure there are those who try to get out of jury duty because they think it’s a waste of time, or others who see the courts as just another way that those in power take advantage of those on the margins. But for the most part I think people get that the courts are part of what makes our society so much better than it would be without a robust judicial system.

I keep myself grounded in my job by staying focused on Jesus. (Hebrews 12:1-2.) Of course, there are times when my gaze shifts elsewhere. I’m glad for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring me back on track. I can’t imagine allowing cynicism to rule when I can serve God in my job.


For another Q&A Tim has done on Michelle Van Loon's blog Pilgrim's Road Trip (looking at his work from a slightly different angle), go here.


  1. Two of my favorite online friends in the same place! I love it. Great Q&A, guys.

    1. Thanks, Anne. You're aces in my book too!

  2. You've made me sound half-way intelligent here, Jeannie. Good interviewing techniques carry the day! Thanks for having me along.

    1. And thank you for being my guest! I've learned a lot from your remarks here.

  3. This was really great and very timely as I feel like here in America most people are looking at everyone in government out of the side of their eye. So good to hear of godly people in the system working for truth and mercy... and such an important reminder that the courts aren't what solve an individual's problem or bring closure, only Christ can do that, which we tend to forget and look for the answers here. Greatly enjoyed the breakfast served here today!

    1. Good points, Kathleen. All the answers, even the ones we don't know we're looking for, are in Christ!

  4. Great questions, Jeannie! I've only known judges from the wrong side of a few speeding tickets and an aborted stint as a juror before "meeting" Tim in the comments section of the Her.meneutics blog. It was a blessing to learn more about how you view and practice your vocation, Tim.

  5. Thanks MIchelle. It's a blessing to me to have friends like you. And now you know (between Jeannie's post here and my interview at your place that judges aren't really all that scary!

    1. Yes, I did kind of steal Michelle's idea for a Q&A though not her questions. Does that make me a bad person? ;-)

      Sorry your link doesn't link here in the comments, Tim -- I'm going to add it to the post itself above, since people might want to go there.

    2. Bad? If I didn't steal other people's ideas I don't know what I'd do, Jeannie!

  6. Yes, great questions. I love hearing insights like this from people's vocations. And isn't it nice to hear from someone who truly enjoys their job?

    1. I remember my Dad telling me long ago that he hoped I'd find a job I liked as much as he liked his, and it wasn't until I became a judge that I really understood what he meant. I really do enjoy my work, Aimee, even though there are days when I have to address some awful things going on in people's lives.

  7. Fascinating. I feel smarter now. Thank you, Jeannie and Tim!

    Tim -- you've certainly helped me overcome my impression that judges are scary! I love how you keep yourself grounded in your job by focusing on Jesus.

    1. I get more smartified every time I read one of your literary posts, Adriana!

      And how can anyone who wears a black muumuu professionally be scary, now?


Please leave a comment. I love to hear from readers, and I always reply!