“That judge wasn’t fair.”
My clients told me this as we walked out of a Ramsey County courtroom nearly 20 years ago. “What do you mean he wasn’t fair?” I asked. “He ruled against us,” they explained.
The case involved a fairly complicated legal issue and we were given nearly an hour for arguments. Judge Roland Faricy was prepared and asked good questions. I had advised my clients ahead of time that the case could be decided either way. My clients watched the entire hearing. In the end, although he ruled against us, the judge had been fair.
What does fairness mean?
Is it really just a matter of winning or losing? Most of the people who come to court understand that judges work hard to decide cases fairly based on the law and the evidence. However for some, like my former clients, fairness only means a favorable outcome. If they win, they think the judge was fair. If they don’t win, they are sure that the system is rigged against them. They remain forever convinced in the righteousness of their own cause and in the complete lack of merit for the opposition.
This is unrealistic. Most of the cases that come to court involve people with genuine good faith disputes. After being assigned a case, a judge reviews the matter to make sure that there are no conflicts of interest involved. The assigned judge wants to make sure that he or she can make a decision based solely on the merits of the case and that no one could reasonably question their ability to be neutral.
When judges decide cases, they also explain the reasons for their decisions. Sometimes it comes down to what the law requires. In other cases it is a fact issue and one side is simply more believable than the other. Unfortunately, for some folks, no amount of explanation will ever be enough. They refuse to believe the system was fair—simply because they did not prevail.
At the start of Conciliation Court I tell people that almost all contested cases involve each side believing that they are 100 percent right. I further advise that typically one side is right. This means that when I make my decision, half of them will think I’m a genius and the other half will be certain that I’m dumber than a box of rocks. I advise them to try one last time to settle their case. There is usually some middle ground that is fair to both sides. One retired judge used to say, “A bad settlement beats a good lawsuit, because at least you know what you’ve got.”
Judge Faricy was fair even though he ruled against my clients. He retired from the bench around the time I became a judge. However, I was so impressed with him that I referred a number of cases to him for mediation work.
It must always be remembered that fairness is not just a result, more importantly, it is a process.
Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. If you have a general question about the law or courts for Judge Galler, send your question to the editor of this newspaper. Learn more about Judge Galler, or listen to a podcast of his columns at www.judgegreggaller.com.