Does This Robe Make Me Look Fat?

January/February 2015

By Judge Laurie L. Hutchins

On my first day at work in 1996, I walked into a courtroom to observe another judge. After practicing law for many years, I naturally headed straight for the front of the courtroom where the attorneys sit. Immediately, the bailiff rushed forward and yelled, "Lady, lady, sit down!"
The presiding judge bellowed, "That's no LADY, that's Judge Hutchins." And thus, with laughter ringing through the courtroom, I began my career as a judge. With 18 years under my belt/robe, I've been called worse names.

A reporter once compared me in print to the "Fabulous Moolah", the lady wrestler heavyweight champion whom he described as a "tough old hag" in the ring, but a sweet and gentle lady outside of it. He wrote:

Our parents told us never to judge a book by its cover and in the case of Hutchins, it's true: She may be nice and sweet and demure and gentle, but when she sentences you, it is going to hurt.

The headline said that I wielded "an iron fist with a velvet glove." Had the Moolah been a lightweight champion, I might have thanked him for the compliment.

I'm a district court judge at the lowest state level. I hear over 10,000 cases a year. It is the people's court; everybody, anybody-all colors, creeds, and zip codes. I hear the lowest level of crimes-chickens running loose in the yard, noise ordinance violations, and urinating in public. I hear the most serious cases-termination of parental rights. I am on the front lines of the everyday human condition. I see it all.

I see men charged with felony drug offenses wearing marijuana tee shirts to court. I see fathers wearing $500 Lebrons or Air Yeezys who owe thousands of dollars in child support. I see Baby Mommas with pictures of Daddy on Facebook holding stacks of money or riding in a new car.

I see nude dancers charged with indecent exposure come to court dressed like dowdy librarians. (Exhibit one: pasties. Exhibit two: merkins. Even Judge Judy would have blushed.)

After a female defendant charged with assault was placed in custody and she set off the metal detector, a bailiff asked me to order her to take out a chain she had running from one pierced nipple to the other. "Therefore, it is ordered adjudged and decreed that Madame defendant remove chain and nipple piercings" is not exactly what I expected as part of my job duties.

I once saw 23 fraternity boys charged with getting a pig drunk and abandoning it. The pig was found at a local park, dehydrated and unable to walk. Ironically, while I received numerous letters from animal rights activists outraged over the pig incident, I have never received a similar letter in a child abuse case.

My father, Fred Hutchins, an attorney for more than 50 years, responded to the infamous pig case with the following letter to the editor of our local paper:

A great cry of animal cruelty has gone out in the community because some boys bought a pig from a slaughterhouse, took it to a party, fed it some beer, and set it free. Is saving a pig from death and setting it free cruel or kind? If I were a pig, I think it would be kind.

Then, Fred took a big bite of his BBQ sandwich.

Fact is stranger than fiction' should be the motto of the trial court judge.

One of my craziest days involved a defendant who came to court wearing a black curly wig. carrying a guitar and a red, lip-shaped pillow. He was a mayoral candidate charged with violating a restraining order by calling his estranged wife 52 times. With a large unlit cigar in his teeth, he testified under oath that he was Jesus.

Well, with that shocking announcement, I ordered Jesus to have a mental examination to see if he was competent to stand trial. It took three bailiffs to get him out of the witness box, kicking and screaming. He never stopped talking: Didn't I know he was friends with Eva Gabor, Dolly Parton, and Miss World USA? In a final remark going out the door, he begged for me to talk to Kathie Lee Gifford-because she should be married to him and not to her husband, Frank.

I have to smile at this or I will go crazy. I have read that lawyers are depressed and commit suicide more often than others. I understand why that may be; no one comes to court for a happy event. It's domestic violence, or child abuse, or driving while impaired, or selling drugs. It is always adversarial, tragic, and sad. At risk is freedom, money, or-even worse-children. We have to find some humor, laughter, or irony in our jobs or risk being swallowed by the mire of despair.

Remember that it's important to laugh, out loud or silently. If you can't do that, at least smile. I often hear requests from defendants to kiss their derrières. Without a beat, I say, "Motion denied." However, I do try and say it with a smile and in a slow, Southern, ladylike drawl.

Judge Laurie L. Hutchins is a district court judge for the 21st Judicial District, serving Forsyth County of North Carolina. She is a member of the Chief Justice Joseph Branch AIC in Winston-Salem, NC.

© 2015 JUDGE LAURIE L. HUTCHINS. This article was published in the January/February 2015 issue of The Bencher, the flagship magazine of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.