Sleepy Judges: Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod

Every trial lawyer has their own story of a judge falling asleep on the job. Before I was called to the bar I was a law clerk for an elderly judge and would accompany him to court to take notes.

On more than one occasion I observed him nodding off during counsel’s tedious argument. During “tea” breaks in his chambers he would also rest his head on his chest for more than just a few minutes He retired at the mandatory age of 75 and went on to hold several high-profile government positions until he retired for the last time at the age of 85.

I’ve also heard stories of lawyers dropping large books on their podiums or the floor to awaken the sleeping judge who will decide their client’s fate.

Of course, the precursor to sleep is yawning and closing one’s eyes. That is fairly routine in long cases where a lawyer consistently meanders away from relevant evidence, or has the habit of repetition, a trait I abhor.

The “precursor” is only welcomed when it is opposing counsel who is causing the judicial condition.

Judge Ian Dodd, age 56, of the New South Wales District Court, endured a media frenzy when his judicial sleepiness was thrust into the spotlight in 2005. The allegations included incidents in 2002 when Judge Dodd fell asleep during a corporate fraud trial and a criminal matter involving weapons offences. In 2003 it was reported that Judge Dodd was sleeping and snoring during the evidence of a rape victim.

In 2004 Judge Dodd, now nicknamed Judge Nodd, fell asleep numerous times during a seven month drug smuggling trial. Defence counsel took to passing notes to the court clerk to gain her assistance to wake up the judge. This was a jury trial and several jurors admitted they were taken aback by the judge’s behavior. Judge Dodd sentenced the convicted offenders to 24 years in jail.

On appeal the accused argued that Judge Dodd’s demeanor was prejudicial to them as it signalled the Court’s disinterest in their evidence and their case.

The Court of Appeal agreed, but refused a new trial and merely reduced their sentences.

Later in 2004 Judge Dodd initiated a medical examination for himself that revealed he had sleep apnea and he began treatment that reportedly cured his condition.

But the media attention did not subside and eventually the State Judicial Commission launched an investigation.

As a result of now seven separate complaints a public hearing was scheduled and Judge Dodd also lost his driver’s license. The hearing was averted when Judge Dodd opted to resign, thus terminating the investigation.

Major changes were made to the legislation governing judges in New South Wales including granting power to the State Judicial Commission to compel a judge to undergo a physical or mental examination, even where there has been no complaint.

The story of Judge Dodd eventually faded from view with a last headline “Sweet Dreams as Judge Retires”. After eight years on the bench, Judge Dodd left with a $152,000 annual pension.

He’s probably out surfing on the Gold Coast!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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2 thoughts on “Sleepy Judges: Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod

  1. Heh. Georgialee, this article brings back memories.

    In the seventies, I was a young RCMP officer in Calgary on drug enforcement: I was in court a lot, some years perhaps as many as 100 or more trials. At that time, the number of justices on the Court of Queen’s Bench was significantly lower than now. So one got to know the judges fairly well, at least from a distance, in most cases (I admit to having a couple as personal friends).

    One of the more famous, or infamous judges, who will remain nameless, had a well-deserved reputation for being a sharp legal mind before lunch, and being virtually incoherent following lunch. We suspected that the difference clearly had something to do with the “liquid” component of the lunch.

    Looking back, the Crown, defence, and me and my associates, tended to glance at each other somewhat nervously after court resumed post-lunch, not being able to anticipate what oddities would result. We were all in the same boat. Of course this was in the pre-charter days, when trials were much more simple…a long trial in those days was one that required a week or more. And the notion of any of the parties requesting a judicial review of the competence of a particular judge was unheard of.

    But the funniest thing that I witnessed, with this particular judge, was of course, post-lunch. Unknown to most, because of the configuration of the judges’ bench, was that he habitually took his small white poodle into court with him. The dog simply laid at his feet during the proceedings.

    But one day, after a seemingly particularly vigorous infusion of his favorite beverage, he leaned back in his chair, went over backwards, and disappeared from sight, and remained that way, apparently completely passed out. The dog, apparently startled, leapt up on the judge’s knees, put its paws on the bench, and stared at us in the courtroom over the bench.

    To say that I, the Crown and the defence were stunned at the sight would have been an understatement. Although not accurate, the sight of this dog on the bench tended to make us feel that the proceedings were being directed by a white, fluffy canine. Fortunately there were not many people in the courtroom.

    Ultimately some young Calgary Police Service officer popped him for impaired leaving court; that led to the predictable mea culpas and his eventual departure from the bench. But he was certainly an entertaining character during his tenure.

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