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Consider the Door

Over lunch in June 1994, my first month as a judge, my colleague Gordon spread Dijon mustard across the landscape of his sandwich, making sure that not the smallest dollop fell from the crust. The governor had appointed him to the bench a month before me.

Peering through his oversized bifocals, Gordon said, “Let’s make a pact.”

I leaned forward. Despite the marine layer that covers Los Angeles in June, we were eating outside, at a small place not far from the traffic noise.

“If you ever start hearing that I’m losing it,” Gordon said, “You must tell me. I promise I won’t get angry.” The way he spoke convinced me that he’d curated each word.

“Agreed,” I said and shook his hand, nearly spilling Gordon’s Pepsi. I asked him to do the same for me. So far, over twenty-six years on, neither of us has had to invoke our agreement. But…three Decembers ago, my car went missing.

I’d emerged from the mall, Christmas gifts in a bag. I thought I’d left my car on Level Three, Row D. Not there. I walked Rows C and E. It was dark and since Level Three was the highest in the parking structure—with no roof above—a cold wind hammered me. Thanks to shoppers driving on the levels below, the concrete surface vibrated. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough. Chilled, with a rumble of incipient panic coming on, I raced back to the mall.

The man in his twenties who drove me in the jitney had surfer-blond hair, a friendly face, and no overcoat. “This happens all the time,” he said, his smile enthusiastic—or was it indulgent?—before he lowered the jitney’s plastic curtains to shield me from the wind. It may happen all the time, I thought, but does it happen all the time to a Superior Court judge who’s supposed to have an excellent memory?

We swept across Level Three, every row. “I could have sworn…” I said.

“Let’s try Level Two.” He sped his jitney around the corner, down the ramp, and straight to my car, in repose, in Row D.

When I’d parked an hour earlier, I thought I’d seen the sky fading into the December dark. I hadn’t seen a concrete ceiling above me. Had I?

“Don’t worry,” the man said. “I’ve helped a lot of older people.”

His remark shook me, made me wonder about my work. Was this how lawyers were starting to view me, as feeble Old Judge Mohr? Or was I still a force on the Los Angeles Superior Court, dispensing rulings allegedly full of wisdom? Over a decade earlier, during a case management conference, a lawyer—a solid-looking man with a strong jawline—tugged at the sleeve of his coat before saying, “My client is an elderly gentleman who…” His client was fifty-five years old. I’d turned sixty a week earlier.

* * *

On June 8, 2014, I went into overtime. I’d been on the bench twenty years, the moment most judges retire, their pensions fully vested. Part of me still felt like a newcomer, what my older colleagues called a “baby judge.” I’d enjoyed that status—being indulged and coddled, free to seek advice without anyone thinking less of me. If Peter Pan were real, we’d have been twins. Then, overnight it seemed, my standing leaped to “veteran judge.” The change reminded me of places in the world where summer pivots to winter in a week. Newer judges started calling for advice. Worse yet, over lunch across the street from the courthouse, someone asked, “Are you planning to retire soon?”

My hamburger lost its taste. “No,” I said.

Later that month an acquaintance sent me an email congratulating me on my retirement. I hadn’t retired, hadn’t mentioned the idea to anyone. He never said how he got that impression and I never asked.

* * *

Everyone says that sixty is the new forty, but seventy-two felt like the new seventy. Seventy-two; my age in 2019 when the California Judges Association mailed me a pin representing “twenty-five years of service.” I can’t remember where I put that trinket. But I do remember the date I received the pin.

I had dropped in to visit Teresa, affectionately known as our court’s “concierge.” She ran the Judicial Support Unit. The afternoon was quiet; my next trial wouldn’t start until morning.

In her office stood a woman I didn’t know, dressed in a fashion-forward pants suit and blouse. She held a folder the likes of which I recognized from my first day on the bench—the paperwork new judges receive, including the IRS I-9, ID card information, emergency contact information, Worker’s Compensation Act resources, a Designation of Personal Physician, the Assuming Office Statement from the Fair Political Practices Commission—the financial disclosure form all new judges must complete—and a glut of other forms to fill out. Plowing through those documents had consumed half a day.

“Meet our newest judge,” Teresa said. “She just took her oath.

”Our newest judge offered me a smile. “I’m so glad to be here.” In those five words she sounded at once reserved and brilliant. She was. Number one in her law school class. Judicial clerkship. Assistant United States attorney and, before that, partner in a top law firm.

We stood a yard and two decades apart. The governor’s office had announced my appointment two days after I turned forty-seven. That’s how old she was. Between us rose an arc: one end at the dawn of a career, the other coasting to the end of one. After she glided out of the room, I needed to sit down.

Teresa, thin with red hair and a narrow face, leaned back in her chair, away from her desk piled high with papers about us bench officers. The presiding judge may have picked our assignments—who’d handle felonies, who’d try civil cases, and who would put up with traffic tickets—but Teresa arranged the moves. She kept track of who was in what courtroom, who was on vacation, who was out sick, who was leaving.

“It’s hard for judges to retire,” Teresa said. She’d watched over a hundred of us come and go. She didn’t have to remind me that eventually the comely genius whom I’d just met would power down, the edges of her mouth would droop, and age spots would invade her complexion, enemy scouts staking out territory. A morning would come when she’d wake up and have no further desire to fight the freeways to court.

“Retirement is hard because your egos are involved,” Teresa said. “That’s why you can’t let go.”

I said she was right. “But you’ll know,” Teresa said, offering me a cookie, which I declined. At my age I needed to watch my weight.

* * *

Two more years have slipped by. I’m seventy-four now. Just as they ushered me onto the court, Teresa’s office stands ready to help me navigate the glut of paperwork I’d have to wade through in order to walk away, a move I’m seriously considering. Among the tasks I’d have to complete:

– Fill out a twenty-page “package” the Public Employees Retirement System sends to retiring judges. Have it notarized. Send it back with certified copies of my birth certificate and marriage license.
– Write a goodbye letter to the presiding judge with copies to the chief justice of our state Supreme Court, my supervising judge, and to the employees who handle judicial benefits. Teresa showed me examples, from the minimal—“I will retire effective ____. My last day at work will be Friday, ___. Thank you.”—to missives brimming with paeans. One spanned two single-spaced pages, a love letter to the court and the years the judge had served.
– Buy a “tail” policy from our malpractice insurer. I’d need it in the future if some disgruntled litigant sues me or the state’s judicial watchdog agency accuses me of misconduct.
– Send a change of address form to everyone I know.
– Notify the legal press and give them a summary of my career.
– Pack up, turn in my keys, parking pass, and laptop computer. They’ll let me keep my badge, nameplates, and ID card as mementos.
– File a “leaving office statement” with the Fair Political Practices Commission disclosing my California assets, including stocks, sources of income, loans, and gifts. As soon as I do, everyone will be able to compare it with my assuming office statement and see if judging made me rich.

* * *

Proud of myself for declining Teresa’s cookie, I head back to my chambers. En route, two judges wave at me. “Three point five,” says one of them, meaning $3.5 million, the verdict the jury returned in her courtroom that morning. She’s a jovial woman who enjoys keeping score.

“Going to bagels tomorrow?” asks the other, a tall man, appointed before me and still in love with the job. He’s referring to our 8 a.m. Friday ritual to which we bring bagels, cream cheese, and whatever other fattening foods we wish. The coffee is free.

“Book club at noon,” the woman says. The judges’ book club meets every other month. Our courthouse abounds with extracurricular activities. Yoga classes. Walking groups. A creative writing group. Lunch guests like former Dodgers, diplomats, and governors. Authors. Rocket scientists from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Watergate convict John Dean. L.A. Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. Do I want to retire and give up all these idylls?

I walk on, up the escalators to my floor. Many in the hall look at me twice; a normal reaction when judges pass by. A deputy sheriff pauses to open the door into my chambers.

* * *

My chambers is a silent place. On one wall hangs a copy of a drawing by Dali, a spinning dervish. My wife—a retired art historian—picked it out. Another framed piece features the lyrics to “My Shirona,” signed by members of The Knack. An impulse purchase one brilliant afternoon in La Jolla. A third, titled “If Animals Ran Politics,” contains eighteen drawings. It’s been in the family since my childhood. The President is a chameleon; the minister of education, a donkey; the head of public works, a tortoise; and so on.

Naturally, there’s an ego wall—diplomas and plaques. My commissions—Municipal Court and Superior Court—occupy the center of the cluster. A commission evidences a judicial appointment. I stare at them with their golden seal, the governor’s signature along with the signature of the secretary of state—“in witness whereof”—and my name followed by the word “Judge.” Also, because I like them, I’ve included my music appreciation certificate from the eighth grade and a certificate from Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School. My private bathroom features a photo taken by Skip, my brother, labeled “The Judge—Dispensing Justice With a Smile.” He photoshopped my teeth, filing each down to a point. Almost none of this will fit at home; we’re out of wall space. At least with my brother’s masterpiece, that won’t matter. I hung it to keep me humble. If I retire, I wouldn’t need Skip’s reminder anymore. Someone told me once that retirement takes you from “who’s who” to “who were you?”

Outside my window is Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and across the street, a building under construction. Four gavels sit on the sill, gifts from well-wishers. I’ve never used them. Trial judges rarely do. We rely on our voices and hand gestures to maintain order. I also display a trophy from a 1974 car rally in which I placed third. Next to it is a telephone message slip: “Tony. Chuck Poochigian—Governor’s Office” with checkmarks by “Phoned” and “Call back.” And the date: May 13, 1994, 12:15 p.m. Chuck Poochigian was Governor Pete Wilson’s appointments secretary, the man who called successful judicial applicants. That’s how I learned my life had changed. No fanfare, drum rolls, or anything else unbecoming a judge. They telephone you. Just a phone call.

If I retire, I ponder what to keep and what to lose. Starting with the notebooks. They fill seven bookshelves. Will I ever use them again? Each time a judge switches assignments, in comes a new binder, the three-ring variety with articles and summaries of recent opinions. My trajectory started with misdemeanor trials, then felony trials, then civil trials, then twelve years in complex litigation—mass injuries, class actions, monster business disputes—followed by five years with accidents, malpractice, and landlord-tenant cases, and now a docket full of business and employment law matters, with some torts thrown in. Notebooks also come our way from our educational conferences, some lasting a week, with time to break bread with our colleagues. I’ve taken courses in topics like Evidence, Felony Sentencing, Excellence in Judging, Jurisprudence and Culture, and Ethics. Nobody forces us to go, but we do; most of us enjoy the experience. Economists say the pain of losing is twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining, which is why I agonize over the thought of trashing any of these materials, regardless of how outdated they are. As one judge wrote in an opinion, “Choice means giving something up” (1). I represent a classic case of loss aversion.

Next, scripts we can read from. Scripts for orienting a jury, picking a jury, instructing a jury, polling a jury, thanking a jury. For taking a verdict, sentencing a misdemeanant, sentencing a felon, granting probation, declaring a mistrial. Will I ever use these crutches again? Without them, will I forget my craft? Will that even matter anymore?

Behind my desk two file drawers bulge with the most turgid prose I’ve ever written—several hundred pages of opinions and orders. To organize them would take hours. There were two stints on the Court of Appeal, where I heard everything—family law, probate, juvenile, dependency, civil, criminal. At least there, the clerks gathered my opinions into a three-ring binder. I’m sure I’ll never read them again, but I can’t bear to toss out my words.

My robe hangs on a coat tree. Shortly after my appointment, a colleague advised me to pick a robe with snaps, not a zipper. Zippers get stuck. Also, choose thin fabric. If the courtroom is cold, you can wear a sweater underneath. A thick robe will make you miserable during the summer if (when) the air-conditioning goes out. And, said my colleague, buy the robe from Academic Apparel. One of their competitors used to make robes for the Ku Klux Klan. I walk over to my robe and feel its soft, soothing cloth.

As for the coat tree, it’s a gift from my stepfather the year I joined the bench. There’s no place for it at home. Maybe the judge who replaces me will agree to store it in chambers until I figure out what to do with it.

* * *

I stop procrastinating. There’s work to do, starting with the file on my desk: a brawl at a bar not far from the courthouse. Each side claims the other started it. The trial would be fun. For me. Not for them. Neither side can be sure the jury will believe their testimony. One has a felony conviction, which the jurors will hear about. Another has an ex-wife who says he’s violent. I’ve yet to decide if the jury will hear that opinion.

To leave. To stay. I sway between the options. One recent trial was tedious, the sort of nonsense that makes me want to quit and travel the world. Someone tapped a car in a parking lot, causing nothing more than a transfer of paint. The driver admitted liability, but the plaintiff wanted a million dollars. His chiropractor droned on about the motorist’s subluxation, progressive arthritis, spinal stenosis, all “in my opinion to a medical certainty.” I couldn’t tell the jury what I thought but didn’t have to. They reached a verdict of zero, no money. A month later I heard a civil rights suit against a bank, a subtle scheme that required a phalanx of expert witnesses to explain. Every morning I drove faster than usual to the courthouse, eager for another round of testimony. The jury hit the bank for millions, which made me glad.

I have “the best job in the world.” I’ve heard that phrase from dozens of judges describing their work. For over two decades they’ve paid me to do justice. They’ve also paid me to learn. Trials offer a window on the world, tutorials in a myriad of subjects. I’ve learned street gang patois and the language of highway design—Botts’ dots and gore points. I’ve learned how to run a cemetery, how to manage a supermarket, how to trace cell phone calls, adjust insurance claims, operate gas chromatograph intoximeters. I’ve learned how not to fire an employee. Expert witnesses have taught me about tires, SUVs, fashion design, and printing presses; about special needs kids, dog training, and forklifts. I’ve acquired enough knowledge of medicine to be dangerous.

I fought back laughter during a drunk driving trial in which the defendant claimed his girlfriend was driving. Trouble was, he couldn’t remember which girlfriend, so he subpoenaed both of them. The ladies got into a fight in front of the jury. After two bailiffs managed to separate them, the taller girlfriend said to the other, “You’re just jealous ’cause I got what he wants.” Whereupon she yanked off her clothes, the jurors either laughed or gasped, and the deputies hauled both of them out. The jury convicted the boyfriend.

Then came a trial where I fought back tears. A former star athlete described how he manages to live with one leg and without his girlfriend. She testified. When the taxi sheared off the man’s leg, they’d been together four months, not long enough to survive the crisis. “This wasn’t the relationship I signed up for,” she said, which is why she left him. She spoke those words with the poise that comes from being a television personality, which she was. It was clear from the man’s face that he still loved her.

But I’m sick of commuting. Sunday nights have started to bother me. I’ve yet to lose my temper with lawyers who spout off nonsense, but the urge to do so is gathering. A rising number of cases on my docket sound alike—the same injuries, the same excuses, the same baggies of coke, the same roaches running across the room, the same nasty boss, the same catfights between counsel.

“Be absolutely sure,” one of my mentor judges said after he’d retired for health reasons. He put down his fork and steak knife and, slowly because it hurt to do so, rotated his linebacker body toward me and, in a baritone voice, repeated that advice before adding, “Because you can’t go back.” Five months later he was dead.

* * *

Somewhere along the slide to the end lies a point beyond which I can’t change my mind, beyond which I’d have to leave. Said one judge, “I started filling out the forms,” but when he reached that penultimate day, “I realized I like my job. I can still contribute.” He hesitated a beat before visualizing a retired life of “following my wife around.” He pulled back his papers and remains on the bench.

But tomorrow or next week or next month, as I close my courtroom door and walk down the hall for the last time, will I regret my choice or look forward to sleeping late? Will I spend the next day in the gym or at a long lunch with friends? Before I die, will I wish I’d spent more time on the bench or more time by the pool, more time reading cases or more time reading novels, more time with attorneys or more time with my family?

For months after taking my judicial oath, my nightmares involved my new identity, “new judge dreams” that, in private, most of us admit to having. Dreams of sitting on the bench naked. Dreams of sitting at the counsel table instead of my normal perch, scared because judges are not allowed to practice law. Then, mercifully, I wake up. What will retirement dreams consist of? A brightly lit room full of colleagues, a room I can’t enter because the door is locked? Or, as they stare at me, will my colleagues fade into mist, the way my mother did in my dreams after she died?

I relish judging and everything that goes with it—the excitement of an opening statement, the drama of a verdict, the lift of a ruling I know is right. I’ll miss those events as well as our banter at lunch, in the halls, and in the garage as several of us linger by our cars and share snippets from our day. Just thinking of them makes me want to remain, but as Joan Didion wrote, “…it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair.” I want to leave before some carny says, “It’s about time.” Still, to imagine the evening I stash my robe deep in my closet with no excuse to don it again—it rips my gut.

And leaving means shedding more than my robe. I’ll lose the armor that’s shielded me against activities I don’t like. When friends want me to raise funds for their favorite charity, I point to the Code of Judicial Ethics; judges can’t do that. When a political candidate asks for big money, the rules give me a reason to refuse. Judicial immunity insulates me from lawsuits should I make the wrong decision. All of this will vanish on my last day.

They’ll still call me Judge. The title lives on but a set of parentheses will follow my name, as in Anthony J. Mohr, Judge (Ret.) of the Superior Court. One step below the real thing. So different from degrees like BA, MD, JD. Those credentials you ride into the future; (Ret.) means it’s over.

A couple of ninety-year-olds are still with us. Unlike some states, California has no mandatory retirement age, a law that would remove the pain of choosing what to do. I’ve made thousands of decisions over twenty-six years but few as taxing as this. California judges are allowed to wait up to ninety days before they must rule on a case. But deciding to retire has no deadline. Maybe it should.

(1) Competitive Enterprise Inst. v. National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (1992) 956 F.2d 321, 322

Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, Brevity’s blog, Cleaver, DIAGRAM, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Superstition Review, and ZYZZYVA. He has five Pushcart Prize nominations. For almost twenty-seven years, he’s been a judge on the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.

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