June 15, 2012

I don’t remember exactly what day it was, but it probably began like any other day in my three-year service as a clerk to U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, who retired this month after 31 years on the bench in the District. What I did not realize that morning was that I would forever be changed by an event that took place that day. 

The courtroom clerk called the next case (I was seated just off to the side of the judge — part of his core team): United States v another criminal defendant. Though I do not remember the man’s name, I will never forget him. He was seated at the defense table, and this was his final hearing in a long ordeal. He had, for the past five years, reported regularly to his probation officer, maintained a job and remained clean. (He probably also spent several years in federal prison.) On that day, the probation officer was reporting on his successful completion of his probation.

The judge’s responsibility was straightforward. He needed only to agree that the terms of the defendant’s probation had been satisfied — with that, the man would at long last be free from the criminal justice system. Judge Urbina did that, but he did one thing more:     After ruling that the defendant’s probation was over, the judge asked the man to approach him. When the man walked toward the front of the bench, the judge signaled for him to come closer by walking around to the side and up the three or four stairs to the small portion of the bench reserved only for the judge.

The man complied. Judge Urbina rose from his chair, and the two tall men were face to face. The judge extended his hand, smiled and told the man that he was proud of him. The man smiled back at Judge Urbina and said thank you.  

I was sure I knew what the man meant. Not thank you for the judge’s discharging his probation. Not thank you for anything the judge had done previously (the criminal justice system is inherently unpleasant for defendants). The man’s thank you, spoken through tears, was for the judge’s recognition of his humanity and redemption. Thank you for understanding the difficult journey just completed. Thank you for showing respect.

With tears in my eyes, I, too, smiled; I knew this was a life-impacting moment for me. So I want to thank Judge Urbina as well. Thank you for showing me the importance of humanity, respect and empathy in our legal system. Thank you for reminding me that this was not just another criminal defendant. None of them are “just another.” They are all human beings, entitled to our patience, our compassion and — when they redeem themselves — our respect and heartfelt pride.

There were many moments of great learning for me during my clerkship. Many were related to complex legal issues. This one was a lesson in basic humanity.

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