Call me Rich?

After the Urbom celebration, I embraced an old friend who is running for the U.S. Senate and who happens to be one of the best trial lawyers of my generation. He has a national reputation. We have been close friends for over 40 yours.

Since 1987 when I became a magistrate judge, our friendship has been necessarily distant because he is a trial lawyer and I am judge. We never socialize. But I know if I ever needed serious help my friend would come running and I would do the same for him.

Anyway, when I saw my friend, he was heading to the elevator. I was standing with some others lawyers, and I yelled his first name, He turned and walked over. He extended his hand and said something like “Judge, how nice to see you.”  We engaged in a short conversation, and then I hugged him as he turned to leave. I said I missed seeing him and we parted.

I don’t like being called judge when I am not judging. It puts a distance between the other person and me.  But, it is awkward. Social conventions require formalities and when such a convention is not followed the omission can be misunderstood (often by those who are inclined to see bad in good).

Today, I received the always fun and informative Jackson List.  It appears that the problem of what to call a judge outside of the courtroom confronts the Justices as well.  Here are the guts of the most recent letter, which I find fascinating:

For the Jackson List:

In early 1948, Dr. Jacob Billikopf wrote from Philadelphia, his home, to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Supreme Court of the United States. Dr. Billikopf, a noted national leader in social work, Jewish philanthropy, labor relations and other pursuits, wrote as a trustee and chairman of the executive committee of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Billikopf explained that he and another Howard University trustee had been, for the past few years, hosting private dinner meetings on campus “for the purpose of making friends for that great institution.” He explained that Howard’s president Dr. Mordecai Johnson, members of his administrative staff, “key men” on the faculty and 25-30 other guests attended the dinners. Dropping mention that Jackson’s colleagues Justices William O. Douglas and Felix Frankfurter had been guests of honor at previous dinners, Billikopf asked Jackson if he would be the honored guest at dinner a month hence.

Justice Jackson promptly dictated and sent back his positive answer. It was contingent, he explained, on another pending matter not claiming his schedule on the date in question. Although Billikopf was not someone who Jackson knew well, he signed his short letter “Bob.”

Billikopf, writing back immediately, focused first on Jackson’s signature:

Dear Mr. Justice:

When my good friend, Benjamin Cardozo, was appointed to the Supreme Court, I naturally greeted him as Mr. Justice. “Don’t call me Mr. Justice. Please don’t,” said he. “How then should you be addressed?” “Call me Ben,” was the reply. Of course I couldn’t be guilty of such irreverence and so we reached a compromise.

Now, then, when I received your letter signed BOB I was naturally flattered and then it occurred to me that it must have been a case of lapsus calami [a slip of the pen]. …

In the heart of his letter, Billikopf wrote that that he was “so happy” that Jackson had accepted the invitation, if somewhat contingently. Billikopf proposed an alternative date, one week later.

For Jackson, that date, February 27th, was clear. On that Friday evening, Jackson attended a private dinner in Frazier Hall at Howard University. He spoke to the group about his 1945-46 work as U.S. chief prosecutor at Nuremberg of Nazi war criminals.

Justice Jackson’s rough notes, from which he spoke, indicate that he discussed the Nuremberg trial and its lasting implications. He described how the Nuremberg judgment recognized individual responsibility under international law. Jackson explained that international law fetters national sovereignty in ways that resemble how the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits the sovereignty of States to violate the rights of individuals.

Following the dinner, Dr. Johnson wrote to Justice Jackson, thanking him for his presence and his remarks. Noting that Jackson and his Nuremberg colleagues had worked there to establish “world community,” Johnson stated his “hope that our own nation may come to exercise increasingly effective leadership toward its realization.”

There is, interestingly, no record of a Jackson response to Billikopf’s comment on Jackson’s “Bob” signature. Following that Billikopf letter, Jackson’s secretary, not he, handled the additional pre-dinner correspondence.

At the Howard University dinner, Billikopf surely greeted Jackson and introduced him to the group as “Mr. Justice.” That would have been consistent with half of what I suspect were Billikopf’s modes of interacting with his friend Justice Cardozo. Their “compromise” was, I think, that Billikopf called him “Ben” in private communication and “Mr. Justice” in public settings.

* * *

This got me thinking. I wonder how readers (particularly trial judges and trial lawyers} handle these situations. If you get a chance, add a comment. I am interested in your views, particularly your “war stories.” Thanks!

And once again, a “shout out” to the delightful Jackson List and Professor John Q. Barrett.*


*You can go to this link to subscribe to the Jackson List which is delivered by private e-mail. It is free.



26 responses

  1. Judge-I greatly appreciate your blogging. It truly does pull back the curtain on the “real life” struggles and challenges experienced by the Judiciary, personal and professional. This conundrum that you raise is an interesting one. I am not an attorney but, for the past 14 years, have worked as an employee of the Courts in a few different professional roles. As is the case when you spend 40-60 hours a week somewhere, friendships happen, and they should, because otherwise I’d have to question how healthy your 40-60 hours are.

    Over the years, I’ve become friends with more than one of the Judges in the Courts I work with and must confess real discomfort at addressing them by their first name, even when invited to. Even when email correspondence is signed-off-on with that first name. It is for that reason that, unfailingly, the first name has been, with one exception, replaced by “Judge” as though that were their first name. In the case of that exception, it is a Judge who has asked people to refer to him by his last name. Interestingly, my young daughter will come to know a few of these Judges, I am sure, and how to introduce those two will be fun. You know: “Sally, you remember Daddy’s friend, Mr. Judge?” 🙂

    An interesting wrinkle that I’d love to hear your thoughts on: My state has the unfortunate reality of an partisan elected judiciary. What would you think should happen if the Judge is defeated in election? What about if they retire from the bench? Do you think they retain their title for the purpose of honorifics? Would your answer depend on whether they returned to the active practice of law? Just an interesting thought to engage in. For my part, I don’t have an answer, but would love to hear if you do.

  2. Ron,

    Great questions.

    Here are few quick thoughts:

    1. When they are not calling me a dumb ass for one of my incredible screw-ups, like the post about what female lawyers should wear, the folks around the office call me “Judge” or “RGK. I prefer “RGK.” The one exception is one of career law clerk, Jim. He is 63 and, together with his brilliant wife, we have been close friends for a long time. When I am with them privately, Jim calls me Rich. Oddly, his wife always calls me Richard. Jan, the other career law clerk, always calls me “judge” even when we are together privately. Jan is 50 or so, and she has been with me since 1993.

    2. Once in a while, even the magistrate judges call me “judge.” Not often, it just slips out. I look down my long nose when they slip up. Since I was a magistrate judge, and our court treats Article I judges just like Article III judges for all practical purposes, titles are verboten. (Secret: Magistrate judges are almost always smarter than Article III judges and that includes Article III appellate judges.)

    3. I still call Circuit judges “judge” with very few exceptions. (As a law clerk to a Circuit judge a long time ago, that habit is just too far ingrained to let it go.) I call Circuit Chief Judge Bill Riley “Bill” in all informal settings. We have been close friends since we graduated together from law school in 1972. In turn, he calls me “Rich” in those situations.

    4. The state courts that use a partisan election method to select judges (Nebraska uses the Missouri plan) cause judges real problems during elections. I just don’t have any experience about that and so I have nothing to offer about how to address a judge during the election cycle when the judge is in a campaign mode.

    5. When a judge fully retires, and particularly if the judge goes back to the practice, I do not think that the former judge should be addressed as judge. In my view, the term “judge” belongs to the office and not the person. That said, there are a few situations where an exception might be called for as in the case where the practicing lawyer is being honored for his or her judicial service. At such a ceremony (but not otherwise), I think it would be perfectly fine to use the honorific.

    I appreciate your engagement! All the best.


  3. I clerked for a judge for four years after law school. That was 10+ years ago. To this day, we still get in touch every few months and have lunch. Our interactions now are entirely social in nature; I have never appeared in his court in my professional capacity. That said, I have never, ever called him by his first name. His name is Judge. If I were to start calling him by his first name, he probably wouldn’t care at all (he signs his emails to me with his first name), but until he says that that is okay, I’ll continue to call him Judge.

    Here’s a funny story. One time during my clerkship, Judge was absent from the court for several weeks recovering from a surgery. One morning during his absence, I was walking out of his office just as another judge came walking down the hall. The other judge said to me “How is Joe* doing?” I immediately froze and wondered “Who the hell is Joe??” In my mind I quickly ran through all of my friends named Joe, but was certain that this other judge did not know any of them. After what seemed like an eternity of awkward stammering, it hit me: he was referring to my boss.

    *Not his real name.

  4. When someone shouts “Laurie,” “Judge,” or “Mom,” I automatically turn around and respond. I find all those names equally honorable and unpretentious. Of course, when on the bench, I expect to be called “Judge” for the sake of decorum and making a clear record.

    As you will recall, you gave me the name “Judge Smith Camp.” I am grateful, and still like the ring of it!

  5. Great story. Indeed, the clerkship dimension adds another layer of complexity.

    Here is a another story, but from a new judge’s perspective. Shortly, after I became a magistrate judge 1987, I was walking down the hall to enter a courtroom I did not usually use. In a loud and frantic voice, somebody from behind me called out,”Judge!” I kept walking completely oblivious to the fact I was being summoned. The person calling me was from my office and they were racing up behind to tell me I had forgotten to put my robe on.

    All the best.


  6. When my good friend and former partner became a federal district judge, I just naturally took to calling him “Your Highness” or “Your Majesty.” He usually responds with some variation of “you fucker.”

    It is, in fact, a thorny problem for lawyers in their social interactions with those on the bench. I’m generally most comfortable with “Judge,” even with those who’ve specifically asked me to use their first name. On the other hand, in discussions about judges with colleagues (I’m talking friends and folks on my side of the aisle here) we mostly refer to them by first name or even nickname – when we aren’t using disparaging terms, that is.

    And then there’s the blog, which is a whole different world.

  7. There’s another dimension to this, too. I understand many judges don’t like to be outed in public for security reasons. One federal judge I know asked me to use his first name out on the street, even if I continued to call him Judge elsewhere.

  8. Jeff,

    Too funny. One of my former law partners, who is now a state judge, calls me “You Fucking Federalist.”

    All the best.


  9. Mathew,

    Since the most common reaction when a member of the public is told that I am judge sounds like this: “Really, THAT guy’s a judge?,” I don’t worry too much about being outed. In that vein, a troubled fellow on the local transit system identified himself some time ago as “Judge Kopf” apparently to get a free ride. The USMS contacted the guy and fixed the problem for the bus service. But that got me wondering whether I really need two cars.

    All the best.


  10. Black Jack Pershing had this view: in any relationship between two men, if the one in the superior position is a gentleman, he never remembers it; if the one in the subordinate position is a gentleman, he never forgets it.

    The military lives by this, mostly. Officers of roughly similar rank often are on a first name basis in informal settings, but if the disparity gets too large, the superior officer’s first name is [rank], and informally, he’s “Sir.” Colonels and above, though, are always Colonel or General, formally, or Sir, informally. A hierarchical system like our courts would seem to benefit from the same. And Magistrate Judges are Colonels. You’re a General, like it or not.

    On addressing someone who no longer holds the position, I offer this example. When I began blogging, one of my fellow bloggers insisted on addressing me as Major Hines. I demurred because I’d resigned my commission rather than retired, and so I didn’t consider (and still don’t) that I’d earned the honorific. He wanted some mark of respect due to my service, though, so we compromised on “Mr.” Courtesy, after all, is about making the other person comfortable.

    Still that seems a bit stiff for me, and other bloggers oblige by calling me “Eric.” Except for those who call me “You dumbsh*t.”

    As to how to address a judge who’s no longer in office for legitimate reasons, my thought is this: a judge’s authorities and duties are substantially the same, regardless of how he got there–elected, briefly, or appointed forever. And, as the Marines believe about their own, once a judge, always a judge. It’s entirely appropriate to address a man who’s no longer a judge as Judge (my compromise with my blogger friend notwithstanding).

    On addressing folks generally: when I married my wife, she already had a brother and a father named Eric. Gave MIL fits when she called for “Eric.”

    The short answer is do what makes you and the one addressing you comfortable.


  11. RGK:

    Since you mentioned your German heritage in some previous post(s), you might appreciate this anecdote:

    When I clerked in Germany (mandatory, called “Referendariat”), my first stop was at a circuit court (Landgericht), civil section. The judge giving courses to all law clerks in that court was Judge S*. He introduced himself on the first day as Judge S, Judge being his first name, and no one ever should call him by his first name. So he was “Herr S.” for us for the duration we were there.
    Personally, I was assigned to a judge chairing a panel of three judges. In court he was “Herr Vorsitzender”, in his office he was “Herr G.” I may want to add that in Germany I would be uncomfortable addressing anyone by his/her first name, unless a) being invited to do so, and b) being of comparable age/seniority/position.

    About a decade later I was sworn in here. Our terrific local bar association offered (and still offers) an introductory tour of the courthouse, which generally concludes with a presentation by one or two of our sitting circuit court judges. I vividly remember that hour, because were taught courtroom etiquette in detail, starting with where to sit, where to put our briefcase and any water bottle we may have (never! on counsel table). He ended with how to address a judge – in court “Your Honor” (“Judge” being also acceptable after having been in his courtroom a couple of times); and out of court, say, on the street, “Judge X”, and no, you’re not allowed to cross the street to avoid greeting him. I think he also chided us for being no good as a generation since we don’t read books anymore. Notwithstanding that, I thought that was rather helpful in clearing up the expectations from the bench (and we received CLE credit for it).


    *: Since that was about ten years ago, I don’t recall the names any more.

  12. I’m not sure that one rule can fit all circumstances. After law school I clerked for a trial court judge. I called him Mike before he became a judge and continued to do so afterwards except, of course, in court. Next I clerked for a justice on my state’s highest appellate court. He was a distinguished jurist and a true gentleman. Under no circumstances would I ever have called him anything other than justice or, in informal moments, judge. When I was young (and single) I dated a couple of women who are now judges. When we pass on the street I still use their first names, but I would never do so in the courthouse, even if there were no one else around. Finally, it’s interesting what Matthew Steigler said about security. When I do see judges on the street whom I know casually, I use the word judge to greet them, but I kind of mumble the word so that no one else is likely to hear it.


  13. Great story about your German experience.

    By the way, after I tossed Nebraska’s flag desecration statute some wags on the Internet, aware of my German heritage and name, took to calling my “Dick Head.” Now that I think about it, I have concluded that’s OK so long as they call me the “Honorable Dick Head.”

    All the best.


  14. The “rule” in my little corner of the world is that if you were friends before the black robe went on you have more latitude to use the first name – only in an informal setting, of course. And among the lawyers we often will refer to the judge by first name when speaking of him or her in the third person, “Fred was never going to give that guy probation.” It’s never had a hint of being disrespectful.

    I had an interesting experience early in my career as a prosecutor. I attended the autopsy of a two year old who had been murdered by mom’s boyfriend. High profile case, very complicated. We knew the medical evidence was going to be critical, thus my attendance. The pathologist had an assistant who was preparing the room for him. The assistant called him by his first name throughout the preparation process. They were discussing a new restaurant in Des Moines as he got out the various tools, sample containers, etc. As soon as the body bag came out of the cooler the assistant switched from “Dennis” to “Doctor”. That always stuck with me. When it was time for the serious work to begin the use of the title helped everyone focus on their duty.

  15. AlanO,

    Yes, indeed, I think your experience at the autopsy suggests a rule we might all follow. First names are fine with friends until the work begins. Simple and elegant.

    Thanks for the tip. All the best.


  16. Judge:
    I have always, and will always, address a judge–both sitting and retired judges–as “judge” out of respect for the office. I am just old fashioned that way. I like your take on addressing a former judge, i.e., the title goes with the office not the person who held it. Yet, I can’t bring myself to address a former judge in any way other than “judge.”
    On the other hand, people seem to like calling me “judge” but I prefer it if they call me “Robert.” I don’t chastise then when they fail to do so, I just say something like “Please call me Robert.”
    On a related note, I have a friend and colleague–a fellow Nebraskan by the way–who is an older teacher with whom I teach mock trial techniques to high school students. She is not one to stand on ceremony yet I have never addressed her as anything other than Ms. K*. Once again, I cannot bring myself to address her by her first name out of my great respect for her as a person.
    As I said, I’m just old fashioned that way.

  17. Robert,

    Ultimately, I agree that you should do what is most comfortable. In your case, my sense is that everyone understand that your formalism when you address other people is part of your deep respect for the other person, and that makes everything else OK. Thanks for taking the time to write.

    All the best.


  18. This is one of my favorite posts on your blog, mostly because I think about this issue more than I (or anyone) should. When I was a practicing lawyer at a litigation firm in Chicago, I had the pleasure of working with one of the most distinguished Illinois Appellate Judges around, but he was retired. I only called him Gino. Sometimes, when I wanted to be extra sarcastic, I called him “your honor” (lower case, with an eye roll–I’d like to think he appreciated the lack of reverence). I never dreamed of calling him Judge, because I never knew him when he was on the bench. People at large events would look at me like I had five eyes when I introduced him or addressed him as “Gino.”

    In Nebraska, I never dreamed of calling a Judge by his or her first name. Then, I became a clerk and the Judges would sign emails with their first names or with something less than “Judge.” I never fell into the trap of first names, thinking, “What if I go back to practice and find myself in front of one of these people, actin’ a fool with an accidental first name?” So, I just called everyone by their replacement first name: Judge. Now back on the other side, I find it very easy to refer to a Judge as “your honor” and [the generic replacement first name] “Judge” because I never changed my practice. When I get an order I don’t like, I have other names I use, of course.

    Interestingly, and on the flip side, I’ve now found that the Judges I knew while I worked at the Court often call me “Marnie” on the record while referring to everyone else as “Mr. ____” or “Ms. ____.” I don’t mind, because “Ms. Jensen” makes me feel like I’m about to walk into a medical procedure. “Marnie” makes me feel a little young and a little less like a real lawyer and maybe a little more like a first-year law student so I feel okay about my performance in Court–I mean, I usually do pretty well for a first-year law student!

    It does seem to prove that we can’t seem to teach old brains new tricks.

  19. My dearest Richard:

    You are have always been my most brilliant friend. And you will always be MY Richard. Sorry, I don’t care about judicial niceties. That is because I got my JD thru marriage.

    Love and kisses,

    Your oldest career law career clerk’s wife

  20. I used to call you “Mr. Kopf.”

    Then I got older, grew some hair under the arms and realized you were a federal fucking judge.

    Now I’m too scared to NOT call you “Judge.”

  21. Interesting comment about formality and context. I have noticed the same thing in an entirely different setting. I race on an offshore sailboat with a group of guys (and women) who have been crewing together for many years. When things are relaxed, everyone uses first names, but when in rough weather where there is the need to be careful and deliberate in our handling of the boat, things get much more formal.

%d bloggers like this: