Why You Gotta Be So…Mean?

My guy was taking a five-year prison sentence, and had arranged for a few weeks to get his affairs in order. The deal was that if he didn’t show up on the appointed day the judge could consider the full (five-to-life) range of punishment.

He showed up late.

The judge gave him six years.

Me: Judge, is being five minutes late really worth a year in prison?

Judge: He was fifteen minutes late.

Me: Okay. Judge, is being fifteen minutes late really worth a year in prison?

Judge: Yes. On sentencing day it is.

No. No, it really isn’t. Sentencing this guy to six years, taking away a year of his life for such a minor infraction, was mean of the judge: shabby, ungenerous, and vicious.

Could the judge legally do it? Probably. It was a violation of our deal, but there wasn’t a whole lot that I could see to do about it, other than keep my cool, hope for the judge to relent, and start planning my 2014 primary campaign for this bench.

It didn’t take long. Within minutes my office paged me: the judge wanted me back in court; she had changed her mind and reduced the sentence to the agreed-upon five years.

When I got back to court, the judge was not on the bench.

The best interpretation of the judge’s actions is that she found in herself an appropriate sense of shame, realized that she had been wrong, and promptly fixed it. While there was no apology forthcoming, I choose to believe that is what happened.

The alternative is this: that she intended all along to sentence my client to a nickel, but used him, his wife, and his family to teach the other defendants in the audience a lesson about timeliness. If so, then instead of a moment of ill-considered meanness the judge is guilty of deliberate cruelty. That is not impossible; I just choose not to believe it.

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