It is very, very hard to be a good judge. Of all the human endeavors, making decisions that directly impact people, their lives, and dreams on a wide variety of intensely disputed controversies is an awesome responsibility. To be a good judge, you have to be very smart, patient, understanding, intellectually and factually honest, have common sense, be experienced in life, energetic, restrained, detached from undue influence, noble, hard working, and intensely dedicated to seeing that people have a chance for justice. It is impossible to find all of these traits in one person, I know my best talents are found somewhere other than as a referee in a trial courtroom.
A federal judge is appointed for life. Like Admirals and Generals of our military and Cabinet-level Secretaries and their Deputies, they are on the Board of Directors of the United States of America. They voluntarily take on the job of making certain that this Land of the Free and Home of the Brave is more than just an ideal we have ingrained into our souls. They are the keepers of a governmental system of the best and longest running democracy to ever exist.
Two of my very good friends became federal judges. As I get older, more of my colleagues are getting tapped for these positions. They change once appointed. The federal judiciary demands that the avoidance of conflicts and appearances of conflicts of interest become paramount. I no longer see my federal judge friends regularly. As an advocate, I can understand and appreciate the need for my friends and judicial colleagues to distance themselves from the lawyers and other friends that may come before them seeking results favorable to our interests.
I guess it comes with the job, but there are personal sacrifices made by those accepting these responsibilities.
One of the aspects of practicing law all over the country is that I practice in front of a lot of different judges in various venues. Virtually all truly want justice in each case. Some are better at it than others. The worst and most dangerous to our society are those who are dishonest or who have closed their hearts to fairness or justice because they have a predetermined agenda. Once in a while, a particular judge makes rulings that show wisdom and leadership. Sometimes, you find these judges in places where people are surprised to find stellar and academic legal opinions, but we are often wrong to stereotype individuals based upon where they come from or live.
For instance, my mother cried the day she learned the Coast Guard was transferring our family to the Mississippi Coast. She grew up in Philadelphia and was afraid her children would never receive a proper education. However, the best academic and life lessons I learned were during the two years I spent with the Brothers of the Sacred Heart at St. Stanislaus in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. My mother cried when we had to leave for my father’s next tour of duty in California. The Brothers are very different from most modern people. They devote themselves to the improvement of people through the teachings of Jesus Christ. They have no other interests; they represent higher ideals. They inspire us to think about the welfare of others over ourselves. I owe them so much and am so unworthy a student of them.
Good judges are very much the same; they become judges to make justice and law based upon higher ideals. Who wants a dumb judge? Who wants an unsuccessful lawyer who just wants a raise as their judge? Nobody. How many successful attorneys, after working harder and better at it than others, want to take a cut in pay to be a judge? Not many. Those good attorneys who do, and truly desire to make this country a better place, without agenda, and with nothing more than a desire to do so, are what we need in our country.
It is truly rare when judges properly understand the practical and academic issues facing them. Either they lack the practical experience, or the very best attorneys are simply taking advantage of their academic abilities, resulting in poor decisions. This problem has not happened in the Southern District of Mississippi since Hurricane Katrina. Judge Senter has repeatedly called the balls and strikes of the ensuing insurance litigation with a reserved attitude and a voice of experience, trying to get the litigation resolved.
A good example of this was the recent ruling in the McIntosh case, where he stopped State Farm from its onslaught of getting opposing firms kicked off cases. His request for the attorneys to get back to the work of resolving cases was well founded. I have been fighting State Farm regarding their request for information which they will use to kick us (policyholder attorneys) off cases. It is obvious State Farm and our clients may benefit from a change of focus, and this was the point Judge Senter made…again.
Over a year ago, he publicly applauded Dick Scruggs on his settlement of over six hundred State Farm cases. Some of Scruggs’ clients did not accept the deal, and I spoke out against the "taking pennies on the dollar" mentality at the class action hearing in February 2007. Still, Judge Senter’s remarks regarding Scruggs’ success in getting resolution did have an effect on us.
Judge Senter appointed his magistrate, Judge Walker, to help in our mediation. I cannot comment on the settlement negotiations we had with State Farm. However I can say that after a number of disagreements regarding Judge Walker’s rulings on discovery, he is a very personal and persuasive type of guy when it comes to settlement. I, and my clients, owe him an awful lot. So does State Farm. Judge Senter set up a special web site for those interested in reading the more important Katrina Claims decisions.
I have disagreed with some of his rulings. He has never strayed far from what most of my colleagues have predicted, either on the insurance company or policy holder side. Still, it is obvious that he and Judge Edith Jones from the Fifth Circuit have a very different view regarding how badly an insurance company can treat its customer before being subject to punitive damages. Some of my colleagues often say that Judge Jones is one of those "agenda judges." I am certain that State Farm and the insurance industry hope more Edith Joneses are appointed to the bench.
I wonder how she would rule if her home were wiped out and State Farm made up a brand new and subjective test to deny her insurance benefits. The bottom line is that Judge Senter is getting his docket cleared and cases resolved. Our clients like this. He should be congratulated for the "Good Shepherd" that he has been–even if we have disagreements over how he has ruled on various issues.
While the parties may disagree, nobody I know of is saying that this judge from Mississippi is not holding his own and providing poorly reasoned decisions. He is giving no rest to either side, as any good and fair judge should do. People from Mississippi should be proud of this very senior judge finishing his career the way he has done with these cases–everybody from the rest of our country should as well, even when we disagree with how he rules.