by Judge Sarah Hennesy
While interviewing to become a judge, I was asked how my experience as an attorney had prepared me for the position. I responded that trying cases for 20 years in state and federal court had been like studying to become a judge. I admit I wondered how different this “studying” would be in relation to the “test” of everyday judging. Specifically, I questioned how difficult it would be adjusting from being an advocate, pleading and arguing on behalf of a client, to the role of neutral decision-maker.
The Minnesota rules which govern lawyers’ conduct say a lawyer’s duty in representing a client includes the responsibility to “act with commitment and dedication . . . and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” In my years as a lawyer, I zealously advocated for a wide variety of clients. As a legal services attorney, I advocated for victims of domestic abuse. As a criminal defense attorney, I represented men and women charged with crimes ranging from traffic tickets to homicide. As an attorney in a law firm, I represented families fighting for better education for disabled children. In each of those roles, I did what lawyers do – worked at being as persuasive as I could to help my clients.
When I took the bench in March of last year, my responsibilities changed dramatically. The rules governing the conduct of judges provide “a judge . . . shall perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially.” They also say “to ensure impartiality and fairness to all parties, a judge must be objective and open-minded.” According to Webster, I am impartial if I “treat or affect all equally.” I am no longer an advocate. I am a fair and impartial decision-maker with the ultimate duty of insuring justice is served.
Prior to taking the bench, I found myself wondering how the skills I had developed as “a zealous advocate” would apply to this new undertaking. I’m finding it’s easier to let go of my role as an advocate than I thought it would be. I still get to do what I value most – listen to people’s stories. The only way I could do my job well as an attorney was to listen, patiently and attentively, to my clients. As a judge, I have the privilege of being able to spend my days listening to people tell me about their lives, their work and their families. I spend more of my day listening now than ever before. I might spend the morning hearing a child’s testimony about her abuser, how he hurt her but she loves him and doesn’t want him to go away. My next case might involve an assistant county attorney fighting to protect the public from a man who cannot or will not stop drinking and driving. Later that morning, a public defender will ask I send a client addicted to prescription drugs to a treatment program rather than prison. The afternoon might begin with an attorney representing a credit-card company that cannot get a debtor to pay and end with a woman who cannot afford an attorney fighting on her own to get visitation with her child.
These stories can be hard to hear. At the end of a long day, it might be tempting to assume you know the story behind the person in front of you without giving him or her the chance to tell it. My experience in advocating for clients taught me the only way to really understand the person standing before you is to listen to him or her with an open mind. I have committed myself to open-mindedly listening to each party before me. This is the foundation for treating those who come before me equally and for making fair and balanced decisions.
Judge Sarah Hennesy of St. Cloud is district-court judge for Minnesota’s Seventh Judicial District, which includes Benton and Stearns counties.