Law in Popular Culture

Examining NBC's new 'Night Court' and new judges

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Kapil Talwalkar, from left, Melissa Rauch, India de Beaufort and John Larroquette star in Night Court. Photo from MovieStillsDB.

I’ve never given much thought to being a judge. Sure, the idea comes to mind every election cycle, and I’ve been approached by a few individuals a couple of different times regarding throwing my hat in the ring. Still, I’ve never taken the notion seriously. First of all, I love my job as a criminal defense attorney. Secondly, as tough as it is to advocate for the legally damned, I think adjudicating someone to legal damnation would be more challenging.

I’ve appeared in front of plenty of judges in my career, and not all of them are created equal. Truth be told, it takes a unique person to be a good judge. The balance one should display is at times difficult to comprehend. You must be firm yet flexible. You must be understanding but ultimately judgmental. Quiet contemplation in some situations, emphatic expression in others. The role of a judge is rife with duality, but if that duality isn’t genuine and purposeful, there’s an issue to address.

‘Night Court’

All that is to say, I have great respect for good judges. Strangely enough, there aren’t too many instances of judge-centric, scripted television series lasting longer than a season or two.

I’ve previously written about the original iteration of Night Court that aired on NBC from 1984 to 1992. In a world where reboots are the norm, it’s interesting that NBC decided to revive a television classic as opposed to reimagining the situational comedy. Keeping the continuity provides a fun way for a new generation to gain exposure to an excellent example of a mid-to-late ’80s/early ’90s sitcom.

Flash forward 30 years, and Night Court is back on the air, but with (mostly) new faces. The exception is John Larroquette reprising his role as (now former) prosecutor Dan Fielding. In the revival, Fielding has been out of the practice of law and working as a process server. Once Judge Stone’s public defender quits early in episode one, she reaches out and convinces Fielding to become her docket’s new court-appointed defense attorney.

While I didn’t hear the issue directly addressed in the few episodes I watched, there were various statements made by Judge Stone that gave off the impression this may be her first experience as a judge in a municipal setting. In the pilot, she notes having moved to the area from “upstate”—which infers she relocated to take the bench. She mentions having “been a judge ‘upstate,’” but there is no discussion as to what kind of judge or in what capacity.

If she was satisfied with her previous position, I would reckon she’d stay in her jurisdiction to either continue her post or reap the rewards of entering private practice as a “retired” or “former” judge. After all, that can carry quite a bit of clout with potential clients, not to mention that, having been a judge, she would be very familiar with the court system she presided over.

When Judge Stone first begins court, the prosecution informs her as to how they usually run their docket. Stone replies, “They gave me this fancy wooden hammer, so … I get to do what I want.” Although a good-natured smile and a canned laugh track immediately follow the statement, it’s hard to pinpoint her perspective. Once again, it seems like this may be (the new) Judge Stone’s first term as a judge in a municipal setting dealing with potential criminal cases.

Or maybe she’s just young and inexperienced.

Taking the bench

As I mentioned in my introduction, being a judge seems far from easy. The reading and writing are the easy part; the emotional aspect of “judging” someone likely is, and should be, more demanding. There is also a mental tax. Here in Oklahoma, plenty of judges who take the bench were litigators in their previous private practice. Consequently, a mental and emotional switch needs to be flipped.

As a judge, you are no longer an advocate regarding the cases you preside over. You take an oath to be a neutral and detached decision-maker, more or less. While there are certain situations in which you act as a fact finder, usually your job is more so to assess what law applies to any given fact pattern and then move forward in applying that law impartially.

Still, switching your approach from advocacy to neutrality isn’t the only mental and emotional hurdle. You also must decide what judicial demeanor you’ll employ. Will you succumb to “black robe syndrome” and pontificate from your perch with no regard as to whether the attorneys before you are just as, if not more, knowledgeable in some areas of the law than you are? Or, instead of a “my way or the highway” stance, will you be open to an honest dialogue between the other officers of the court, especially concerning areas of the law you may not have much experience with?

The same question goes for how you decide to treat the parties appearing before you. Will you rule with an iron fist? Or will you show compassion and understanding when necessary? Judge Stone runs into this conundrum in the third episode of the Night Court revival. She finds herself vacillating between both extremes, trying to discern what kind of judge she wants to be and, perhaps more importantly, what kind of judge she needs to be.

Politician v. public servant

Part of that struggle might be due to the dual nature of the position. At least in Oklahoma state courts where I practice, judges are elected or appointed, and even those who are appointed must run for reelection to keep their seat. Whether they like to admit it or not, their future job prospects are at least partially tied to how they appear in the eyes of their constituents.

You worry some judges feel they have two jobs: apply the law and appease the voters.

Give too many defendants probation? You’re not tough enough on crime. Dismiss too many cases involving unconstitutional searches and seizures? You’re giving into legal loopholes. Hold the prosecution accountable every step of the way? You’re against law enforcement.

I don’t want to appear too skeptical, but I see and hear how races play out every election cycle. There can be lots of mud hurled back and forth. It can get pretty messy, and people want to try and stay clean. So, there is a lure to towing the party line.

For that reason, it’s sometimes less stressful litigating in federal court. Federal judges have lifetime tenure, so they aren’t forced to run for election. Due to their job security, they’re much more isolated from the whims and wishes of potential voters.

Be that as it may, I don’t want this column to come across as an argument that political aspirations compromise all, or even the majority, of state court judges. It’s just that, while I’d like to believe reelection doesn’t enter into a judge’s mind when they analyze and apply the law, I know they’re only human at the end of the day. The hope is that they care more about their oath and everything that goes along with it than the power and the steady paycheck that goes along with their position.

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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