Judging Rory

Jurist Rory Olsen can put you in a mental institution and cost you hefty court fees. Critics wonder whether he can handle the job. Big deal -- he's a bottom-of-the-ballot Republican.

Some lawyers say Olsen is up to the job. Attorney Pete Schneider said he was in trial in Olsen's court in 1999 or 2000 for more than a month in a complicated hospital liability trial and found Olsen's rulings to be fair and prompt and that he was sensitive.

Other observers say he relies too much on his first assistant, Georgia Akers, an attorney who ran against him for the Republican nomination and then went to work in his court.

While some attorneys rise to his defense, his own bar polls gave him so-so ratings. Some find his court manner arrogant and demeaning -- he's often described as a judge who feels he's been made invincible by putting on his robes -- but other critics say he's an amiable enough sort who's just in over his head. They add that he becomes defensive if anyone suggests that he doesn't understand something.

Judge Rory Olsen says it's part of the territory that people sometimes will disagree with his rulings.
Courtesy of Judge Olsen
Judge Rory Olsen says it's part of the territory that people sometimes will disagree with his rulings.
Olsen tries to create a warm, welcoming feeling in his courtroom using movie stills and posters.
Margaret Downing
Olsen tries to create a warm, welcoming feeling in his courtroom using movie stills and posters.

He is not helped by the fact he's following Judge Scanlan's act, which in retrospect has become an icon to the mental health community. Melinda Brents, the assistant county attorney who works with mental cases at HCPC, says Olsen does "a fine job."

Asked about how he feels when a ruling of his is reversed, Olsen was nonchalant. "I don't worry about it. Judge Scanlan told me it's part of the territory. You've made it through three years of law school and people disagreeing with you. It comes with the territory." He said he's been reversed only once on a mental health case. The higher court said he shouldn't have ordered one commitment, Olsen said.

One of the courthouse stories that go around about Olsen, who is known to avoid public speaking despite his denials, was the time he appeared on a panel with several other judges before a group of lawyers.

The moderator asked a question, the first judge answered, the second expanded upon that a bit and so on down the line. As anyone knows who's ever done this, it can get really tough to come up with something new the farther you are in the chain.

As the story goes, Olsen answered the first one or two questions but then as another question came around, he confined his answer to one word: "Ditto."

Well, this was kind of funny, perhaps a wry commentary on the inaneness of panel discussions. During the next round, a new question came to him and he answered "ditto" again. And so it went for most of the evening, earning him an instant new nickname.

Did people laugh? "No," one attorney says. "Everyone was uncomfortable. It was excruciating."

It's probably ditto time for Olsen again. We'll leave it to the people in his courts to determine if the result is wryly funny, uncomfortable or excruciating.

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