Law and Disorder

In Janice Law's quests for a judgeship, the fourth time was a charm -- and now an alarm for the rest of the courthouse

She was hardly a household name or even well known around the courthouse. On the long election slate, neither were most of the other bottom-of-the-ballot candidates. But in a few months, Law would gain celebrity status -- the wrong kind -- in the criminal justice system here.

If there was a theme to Law's campaign, it was a fairly standard spiel of reducing backlogged dockets. Her defeated predecessor Chow admitted problems in moving cases, although she'd been plagued by an illness and the death of a close family member.
Law challenges prosecutors on dismissing some cases.
Law challenges prosecutors on dismissing some cases.

Once on the bench, Law followed through with a hard -- some say hell-bent -- emphasis on processing the workload in her court. But attorneys found that, rather than a method to her madness, her methods were madness.

Every judge sets limits on attorneys for the time-consuming but important task of selecting juries. Law brought out an egg timer for each side. "It didn't matter if it was the state or defense, or whether an attorney was in the middle of questioning a prospective juror on a vital point or anything else," says one lawyer. "If the egg timer went off, that was it -- she'd stop 'em in mid-question or mid-answer."

While she is pleasant in the courtroom, Law has gained a reputation for her reluctance, or downright refusal, to reset cases, especially for trial. Attorneys had to personally appear in court for those chores. And they had to go before the judge herself to postpone a case.

That process actually contributed to increasing delays for those with business in her court. Law began her docket calls at 8 a.m. -- an hour before most judges.

The 8 a.m. start drew protests from prosecutors, who had to arrive for work at 6 or 6:30 a.m. to prepare for new cases flowing in from the previous evening. After taking their concerns to Law, she delayed the start until 8:30 a.m.

Such sessions are typically finished by mid-morning in many courts. With Law, they regularly extended through the lunch hour and beyond.

Lawyers found themselves waiting out long lines to make their appearance in front of Law. Some attorneys now say they've been forced to charge clients a "Law surcharge," a significantly higher fee when they find out a case has fallen into County Court No. 5. The reason is that it ties them up a lot longer to handle what is quick and routine elsewhere.

However, the focus on fast action carries some contradictory -- if not confounding -- twists.

Law loves hearings, even when there is no need for such time-consuming formalities. Repeatedly, defense attorneys and prosecutors protest that she won't simply accept standard motions for the dismissal of cases, particularly motions to revoke probation.

"There is more than enough legitimate work for those courts -- more than enough to occupy an able-bodied judge, without putting the state through those hearings," says attorney Brian Wice. "When you insist upon hearings, you devalue the currency of what really matters."

Worse, say attorneys, is that Law's penchant for hearings is more than time-consuming. In some cases, it has bordered on breaking the fundamental balance of the justice system by pushing for prosecutions even when the prosecution has determined there is no case. "She's acted at times like the defense attorney and prosecutor, as well as judge," one lawyer says. "That's not her role. We can't believe the places she sticks her nose into."

An example came in May. Prosecutor Kevin Petroff and defense attorney John Tipton appeared before Law for what they thought would be a very quick finale to a theft case. The defendant's one year of probation had ended with him serving 64 of the 80 hours of community service work.

The state had alleged earlier that the man had failed to pay some of his probation fees, but he had made good on those bills. Prosecutors, with the consent of the probation department, were ready to declare that probation was completed, with notice on his record that it was unsatisfactorily terminated. That would be one less case lingering before Law.

She didn't see it that way. According to the transcript, Law refused to consent to the dismissal. Then she proposed a three-day jail term for the defendant instead of accepting the agreement worked out.

Finally, Law began trying to conduct her own hearing, when all both sides wanted was to have the proceeding dismissed. She questioned her probation officer and even started to question the defendant, over the strong objections of defense attorney Tipton.

Prosecutors blocked her effort to start her own hearing when they refused to call an officer to verify the identity of the defendant through fingerprints. Finally, Law berated prosecutors and told the attorneys that they could "argue legalities."

In another case, attorney Phil Baker says, prosecutors tried three times to dismiss a motion to revoke his client's probation, until Law goaded them into a hearing where she sentenced the defendant to 325 days in jail.

Baker's client had been convicted of stealing a boat propeller and given probation. Authorities filed the revocation action after accusing the man of retaliating against those involved in the theft case.

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