Some of the most frequent questions I’ve received since finishing my federal district court clerkship involve how certain judges feel about specific parties or issues. In a political climate that often portrays the federal judiciary as a battleground for partisan politics rather than a bastion of neutrality, these questions are understandable. And in a world where legal disputes are more often litigated on paper before a judge rather than in person before a jury, it is understandable for clients and attorneys alike to question whether and to what extent they face institutional biases that might affect the outcome of their case.
It may sound unrealistic, but spending a year behind the chambers curtain taught me that those questions matter a lot less than one might think. Judges, of course, are humans capable of harboring internal biases just like the rest of us. But particularly at the federal district court level, judges make decisions under the constraint of legal precedent, and mindful of appellate review if they get it wrong. District judges often manage a heavy caseload covering a wide variety of subject matters. In my experience, these realities incentivize judges to “get it right” in the most efficient way possible.
For legal practitioners, this means that advocating clearly and succinctly why the law and facts are on your client’s side is still the best weapon in the legal arsenal. This is particularly true when one considers that the judge’s clerk—oftentimes a recent law school graduate—will more likely than not be the first person to evaluate your case. Just as important are following the federal and local rules and litigating your case with courtesy and respect for the Court and opposing counsel. Failure to follow the rules can be fatal to one’s case regardless of the legal merits. Failure to show respect to the court and counsel could make a close call go the other way. These are simple and obvious principles to litigate by, but it is surprising and disappointing how often attorneys seem to forget them.
Keeping this perspective can be difficult for clients, too—especially those for whom litigation is unfamiliar and involuntary. It can be tempting to take on a righteous or uncooperative approach, but such tactics are just as likely to lead to poor results. If you’re looking for neutrality and a clean slate with the court, looking inward first is a good place to start.