Daily News

Judge gives firsthand look into system

By Mark Lardas
Correspondent Galveston Daily News
Published November 5, 2006

Yield, A Judge's Fir$t-Year Diary, by Judge Janice Law, Eakin Press, 2006, 317 pages, $24.95

'Yield," Judge Janice Law's excellently written account of her first year on the bench, provides an unflattering, yet absorbing account of the Texas courts system. She relates her experiences in the Harris County Criminal Court as a misdemeanor judge.

Law warns readers that life on bench is nothing like it is portrayed in Judge Judy's courtroom. That is true. By the end of the book, Judge Judy looks good by comparison.

Despite Law's assurances, neither the infighting among judges, nor the legal profession's obsession with money will shock most readers. Office politics and greed are part of many workplaces. It is unsurprising to discover its existence in an institution as structured and bureaucratized as a court system.

What astonishes a reader is the pettiness. Her colleagues behave like obnoxious, ill-mannered, status-obsessed high school students. Prom court, not moot court, seems the best preparation for the bench. Tenth-grade humor and ninth-grade backbiting typify the actions of these judges and lawyers.

Law does not spare herself. She comes to the bench beholden to no one, having self-financed her campaign, winning a long-shot race. Independent of the salary the job offers, Law, unlike many of her colleagues, does not need the money. Despite this, instead of ignoring (or laughing off) the hostility she faces, she actually loses sleep over it. Why? It is hard to say - but she is intimidated.

Law paints an intriguing portrait, though. "Yield" will capture your attention. Events unfold with the fascination associated with watching an automobile accident. Law is an engaging author (she worked 14 years as a journalist) who tells an entertaining story.

Although names are fictionalized, those who then lived in Harris or Galveston counties - or those willing to spend a few hours going through newspaper back issues - can learn the real names behind Law's masks.

You may be angry with yourself by the time you finish reading "Yield." Texas elects judges. Law points out that this should serve as a check on the cronyism and financial back scratching she describes.

Many judges rely upon voter apathy to fly under the public's radar. Unless voters educate themselves about their judiciary, only egregious misconduct triggers removal.

That beats the alternative - appointed judges, who can only be removed by impeachment - but not by much. One reason "Yield" needs to be widely read is to raise voter awareness. Until voters do wake up to their responsibilities, stay out of misdemeanor court.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City, and Janice Law writes a monthly travel column for The Daily News.

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