Trial Judge Woes: No Submissions, No Tears, No Wigs

You don’t have to be a famous judge or blessed with a crazy case to write a Hall of Fame Strange Judicial Opinion. Here we have a low-level New Zealand trial judge trying to educate his appellate court masters about life down in the “real world” trial court-trenches, and a good-humored, self-effacing reply from the appellate court.

In New Zealand, an appeal over a $100 fine for failure to register “a handsome German Shepherd named Ben” apparently irritated the overworked trial judge. In a memorandum, the judge sought to educate the high court about the process for administering justice in his humble court at the bottom of the judicial hierarchy:

Your honour may not be familiar with the manner in which “Minor Offences” are dealt with in this Court. Notices of Prosecution . . . are surreptitiously placed in the Judge’s “In Tray” at frequent and irritating intervals, usually in his or her absence. They come in stacks and bundles … [The trial judge proceeds to describe the variety of matters crying out for his daily attention, including applications for Massage Parlor licenses, truancy notices, underage drinking citations, etc.]

The Judge peruses the mountain of files with great care and then imposes whatever he or she deems appropriate. No hearing is held. No defendant or counsel are present. No submissions are made. No tears are shed. No howls of derision are heard from the gallery. … No anxious mother suckles a fretful child. There are no sideways glances or rolling back of eyes from counsel’s table and certainly no titters are heard to run around the Court.

The Judge sits alone in his chambers and affixes his facsimile signature to the Information Sheet perhaps muttering silent curses to himself as he does so. …

I hope this short memorandum may assist Your Honour in dealing with this appeal.

High Court Justice Grant Hammond (pretty sure this is him–please correct if wrong), chragined, contrasted the trial judge’s mundane existence with the grandeur of his much more regal appellate court, describing how on the day of the hearing over the hundred-dollar appeal, “[i]n full High Court regalia we processed bewigged and black-robed through several levels” of the court building.

It was clear Justice Hammond felt awkward  about “tinkering” with the trial judge’s work. He quoted political philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s description of court systems as “a fathomless and boundless chaos, made up of fiction, tautology, technicality and inconsistency, and the administration of it a system of exquisitely contrived chicanery which maximises delay and the denial of justice.”

In the end, Hammond’s court reduced the fine to $20 because the appellant didn’t have the money to pay the higher fine.

Lowe v. Auckland City Council (High Court, Auckland, AP44/93, 12 May 1993, Hammond, J.). Thanks to Lina Lim.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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