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Experience as a Judge in the State of New Jersey

Interviewer: I’m sure the common person, the public, thinks that, for instance, a prosecutor’s just out to convict everybody and they have to convict as many people as possible in order to look good, but you dispelled that myth.

Sam Sachs: That’s not the mandate, but there are a lot of them that behave that way. Judges are supposed to be neutral parties that adjudicate the law and the facts. Most people have some biases but judges are supposed to put those aside.

Interviewer: What have you heard that the public thinks of judges? What have you felt is their perception is of judges – besides being afraid of them, I’m sure?

Sam Sachs: It depends on how the system treats them. Some judges are extremely respectful. No one ever came into my courtroom where I didn’t call them sir or ma’am. Other judges are demeaning and they make fun of people because they don’t speak English properly or they’re of different ethnic backgrounds. Hopefully the system weeds those people out. It’s gotten better and better over the years. As I said, we have the best system in the world, but it’s certainly far from perfect.

I remember, when I first started practicing, women were given a hard time when they were lawyers. It’s not like that anymore. There are a lot of women on the bench now, but the system evolves slowly.

Statements that People Make Right after an Incident Tend to Be More Accurate Than the Statements Made Later

Interviewer: Did you get jaded or did you feel like you got jaded or your heart turned cold because you heard so many people may be giving you excuses for getting in trouble?

Sam Sachs: There are some things that are nonsensical, like with a speeding case when someone says to you, “My car doesn’t go that fast.” I’m not buying that. First couple of times you hear that, you laugh, or you have a young woman with little kids that gets a speeding ticket and she says, “I wouldn’t go that fast with my children in the car.” Please! You chuckle the first few times. Around the thousandth time you hear that, yeah, you get a little jaded about it, but by and large, you have to measure each person by their credibility.

I was very analytical about deciding cases and do the same thing in preparing my cases for defense. Theirs is almost always some physical evidence or some scientific evidence and I try to see if the stories match the physical evidence, and where they match, then it’s probably true. Where they don’t match, then you have a discrepancy. When you have two different witnesses, you’ve got to decide which one makes more sense and which doesn’t, who has a motive to say something and who doesn’t, which is more logical and which isn’t?

Statements people make right after an incident, right after they’re arrested –although I advise people never to make statements –tend to be more unvarnished than the ones that they speak about three months later after they see an attorney, so you have to take that into consideration. I taught at the new municipal judge’s conference for several years while I was a judge and I used to tell the newly appointed judges that when the cases before them became files rather than people, it was time to get off the bench.

Collecting Outstanding Money is an Unpleasant Experience for a Judge

Interviewer: What kinds of things would people in your courtroom do that would make you angry or make you not happy with them? What things made you happy with them?

Sam Sachs: I didn’t want them to make me happy and I didn’t really want them to aggravate me. What I wanted was respect for the forum, and I wanted to have them not make a lot of noise and not carry on, but within the realm of all the things that could happen, you have to understand, people are under stress. Most people are scared to death when they’re in court.
I used to sit in many municipal courts around Mercer County and I would frequently be in the urban areas where there is significant poverty. One of the things that’s unpleasant for a judge to do is to collect outstanding money.

They’d lock them up because they didn’t pay fines for years and years and years, and then they would come out of a jail cell and I would say, “You owe the court $800 for the last 17 years.” Their response was frequently, “Well, Judge, if you’ll let me go today, I’m starting a job on Monday.” Yeah, okay. Playing me for a fool was never something that I was particularly happy about happening, but the other half of it is, whatever was going on in my life, I tried very hard not to bring it into the courtroom. Sometimes you have good days. Sometimes you have bad days. I’ve been before judges and wondered, “Did they have a fight with their spouse this morning? Did they wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”

I don’t think there’s any place for that in the courtroom, nor is there any place for that when you’re representing somebody. You’ve got to give it 100% when you’re doing it. It’s the same thing with a prosecutor. People have different axes to grind for different reasons. If you’re a prosecutor and one of your relatives was killed by a drunken driver, how vigorously do you think you’re going to prosecute drunk driving? If you’re a prosecutor and one of your family members was raped or a friend was raped, are you going to be objective about handling a rape case?

Those are the kinds of things you have to think about. As a judge, and as I taught other judges, you might like somebody’s attorney. You might not like their attorney. You might think the defendant’s well educated or you might think they look like a street person, but what you should do in your head is say, “If this person had a different attorney, or if this person was dressed well instead of shabbily, would I still come to the same conclusion?” Everybody has some bias. The question is whether you can keep it out of the process and that’s always what I strive for.

Throwing Yourself at The Mercy of the Court?

Interviewer: Did you feel like there was a mercy of the court? Did people try to say that – “I throw myself on the mercy of the court” – or is that just a false premise?

Sam Sachs: Occasionally, you’d have someone say that or someone would come into court and call me “Your Eminence,” which I always thought was hysterical. Being unduly solicitous never played well. I also thought it was rather insulting when women came into court and dressed provocatively, as if my judgment was going to be tempered by the way that they looked. I just thought that was insulting to me.

By the same token, if a guy works all day long and comes in with grease on his hands and under his fingernails and he’s wearing work clothes, I have just as much respect for him as the guy who comes in a three-piece suit. You can’t let that get into the equation and the same thing goes for my clients. I don’t judge clients.

I had a very interesting discussion with a renowned man of the cloth one time. He wanted to ask me about how I judge people, and I said, “I don’t judge people.” He said, “Well, you punish people.” I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “You must judge them.” I said, “No, I don’t. I don’t decide whether someone’s a good person or a bad person. That’s for a higher authority, if you believe in a higher authority, which I certainly do.” I said, “What I judge are people’s actions. I don’t judge whether they’re good or bad. I just judge what the State can prove beyond a reasonable doubt what they did or didn’t do.”

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