May 7, 2008
Professor Joe Taylor, who teaches in McGeorge’s widely acclaimed Trial Advocacy program, completed his fifteen year serving as a pro tem judge for the Sacramento Superior Court in early May. Back in 1994, the former district attorney and public defender made an agreement to offer his services to the Sacramento Superior Court as compensation for the participation of that court’s members in the law school’s Trial Advocacy mock jury trials. This year, Taylor presided over one criminal jury trial, two motions to suppress, and one sentencing. Here are his reflections on his latest experience on the bench.
The ride-along program hosted by most police departments offers citizens an insight into the duties, responsibilities and training required to effectively perform the role of a police officer. In a sense, I participate in a judge-along program. Every year for 15 years I have served two weeks as a judge pro tem in the Sacramento Superior Court handling criminal cases including jury trials, felony preliminary hearings, motions to suppress, and sentencing hearings.
This year, I arrived on the morning of April 21 and was greeted by a prosecuting attorney and a deputy public defender assigned to my court for trial by jury. The defense attorney was a former Trial Advocacy student at McGeorge. After securing stipulations from both counsel allowing me to serve, I was faced with 14 in limine motions, each supported by case authority. And, the Jury Commissioner’s Office had 40 prospective jurors waiting to be sent to the courtroom. This was a typical Monday morning jury assignment. I had to review the motions, the supporting authority, do my own research, and try and resolve these motions before jury selection. Typically this is done in a short time, usually before the noon recess, so that jury selection could begin in the afternoon. We were also faced with witness availability issues for the key officer and the critical forensic scientist or criminalist called by the People. At the beginning of the afternoon session, I ruled on each of the motions.
Later, we began the jury selection process, facing a number of hardship issues first. Then through group questions followed by individual questions, the court and counsel worked their way through the entire panel, and we had to call additional potential jurors. Eventually a jury of twelve, plus two alternate jurors, was selected and the trial began. Two courts had to juggle their trials to accommodate the same criminalist. Throughout the trial, there were numerous objections made and ruled upon. For closing argument, the court dealt with computer technical issues so both attorneys could use PowerPoint and so the jury instructions could be shown as I read them. Finally, on Thursday afternoon the jury was sent out. Friday morning, one juror could not continue because of illness. We then substituted that juror with an alternate, gave the jury further instructions, and sent them out with instructions to begin their deliberations anew. The jury returned with guilty verdicts in the afternoon, and sentencing was put over until May 2 when I sentenced the defendant.
Later, I was assigned in succession two motions to suppress evidence. In each case, one of the attorneys was a former Trial Advocacy student at McGeorge. Each case required further research before I issued rulings denying each of the two motions.
I offer this information because my experience was typical of normal, non-complicated cases that are processed every day in every state in our nation. The judge is not engaging in an academic exercise. He or she has to function in very practical ways at many levels. As the well-known jurist and author Judge Richard Posner suggests, every day is a sea of uncertainty. And as the good judge suggests, it would be well for academicians to fully understand that role when we are preparing the next generation of lawyers and judges.