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Her Honor

When I was a baby lawyer, judges were the embodiment of authority: unapproachable white men at least two generations older than me who probably didn’t even have first names. Today, I often walk into court and someone who looks just like the girlfriend I had drinks with the night before is sitting on the bench wearing a black robe. What happened? I did get older, sure, but judges as a group – at least in the courts where I practice – have gotten younger, more female, and less white.

I remember distinctly the first time I realized a judge could be just like me. I was at a potluck dinner with parents from my younger daughter’s middle school. The mother of a good friend of my daughter’s had just been elected judge. She was fielding congratulations from the group. I asked her about her court schedule, and she described it, including how often she had chambers weeks, which are weeks when judges get a break from hearing cases so that they have time to do research and write opinions. Another mother asked what a chambers week was. The new judge – an African American single mom – said, without missing a beat, “that’s when you do your laundry.”

Having judges as peers has made me understand the extent to which the courtroom is a theater and each person in it, including the judge, is playing a part. When the guy on the bench seemed to be from a different, more powerful world than me, I didn’t think that hard about why I had to call him “Your Honor” and stand up every time I addressed him and be politely deferential even when he was ruling against my client, because it seemed the natural order of things – he was older, more powerful, often intimidating, and I was really still a young girl masquerading as a lawyer.

Now I know that the masquerade goes both ways. The elaborate rules of courtroom conduct and decorum do not reflect a natural order; they help maintain a socially constructed one. We’re all playing roles including those old guys I appeared before 25 years ago and who did, in fact, have first names.