You occupy a pedestal and are given a gavel that can be rapped as you please. Just like a bishop, you wear a long black robe that looks Solomonic and even covers up lunchtime ketchup stains.
The pronunciamentos you intone are listened to in respectful silence and are more sacred than the bishop’s, because the bishop can’t put anyone in jail. Lawyers figuratively tug their forelock when they call you “your honor,” and they drool at the dream of being in your place.
That’s the upside life of a judge, but despite all the perks and prestige, Superior Court Judge Rick Mills hung up his robe three weeks ago and walked out of the Vista courthouse, retiring after 14 years without regret. In fact, he’s glad to be going.
Mills is a tall, angular, straight-arrow man who could impersonate a principal in any high school. Not the type of guy you’d slap on the back.
However, he’s capable of surprises: Before taking the judge’s oath, he was a criminal defense lawyer in Escondido who kept some really bad guys out of jail. But he also was a former assistant district attorney who arranged long rides for other bad guys in buses with wire-mesh windows.
He was not a political operative but had enough law-and-order cred that Gov. Pete Wilson made him his last judicial appointment before leaving office.
Mills had applied for a judgeship because he was tired of the daily grind of practicing law. Then, after 14 years on the bench, he decided to retire and resume his interest in real estate investing. He also might take an occasional client, especially in the work he most enjoyed — defending police officers accused of misconduct.
He is giving up a $179,000 salary, which he says is substantially less than what he made as a lawyer a decade and a half ago. In return, he gets a pension and freedom. At age 70 and a resident of rural Escondido, he will settle into the life of a country squire.
Still, is it going to be tough to go from “your honor” back to plain Rick?
“Not for me. I’m very anxious to go back to where I can do whatever I want to do. I can talk to whomever I want, and I can say whatever I want. I don’t have to be politically correct. If I want to go make money, I don’t have to worry about the conflict-of-interest ethics of the court.”
You sound like a liberated man.
“That’s how I feel. In a year, nobody’s going to know who I am or remember me or anything. That’ll be just fine.”
As a judge, Mills specialized in criminal cases because of his expertise. And after having the best seat in the house at hundreds of criminal trials, he formed strong opinions as to how those omelets are made. Opinions that he does not keep secret.
He will surely dismay criminal defense lawyers when he says that, across the board, prosecutors are better than they. And — unkindest cut of all — public defenders are better than most hired lawyers. “There are a couple (hired lawyers), like (ex-district attorney) Paul Pfingst, that are just the best I’ve seen. Other than that, public defenders are right there at the top.”
He’s not through with lawyers: “I think that there are lots of people that go out and hire lawyers that they see advertised on television and the Internet (who) are simply not good lawyers. People pay a lot of money and don’t get much for it.”
Did you sometimes sit on the bench and wince at some of the things lawyers do?
“All the time.”
Did you ever tell them that in chambers?
“I tell them that in open court. When I started (as a judge) and saw what I saw, I hardly could believe how bad the lawyering was. It took me years to adjust to the fact that what I was seeing was the new norm.”
Mills is asked why some criminal trials are over in a couple of days while others last weeks.
“A lot of judges let the lawyers run the case and do whatever they want. I don’t think that’s right. Most cases I got took half as long to try (as lawyers expected).”
He says sentence add-ons for hate crimes shouldn’t exist. “I think people should be charged for what they did. If you attack a white guy, you’re doing the same thing as if you attack a black guy or a Mexican, and you ought to get prosecuted for that (and only that).
“I would say that in years past, the DA’s office used the hate crime enhancements quite a bit. I haven’t seen one in a case that I’ve done for a long time; it’s seldom used anymore. It’s still abused, I suppose, but it’s not a big problem.”
That transitions him into an impassioned complaint against the Legislature for creating unnecessary laws, the punishment for which even judges struggle to sort out. He blames politicians for making criminal law, especially sentencing, far more complex than necessary.
“We used to have indeterminate sentencing where people got five to life or 10 to 20, and then the parole board figured out when they would get out. That got eliminated. We now have determinate sentencing that’s made the process far more complicated.”
Mills says that sometimes when he had to impose a sentence for a complex crime, he would confer with other judges as to length and not get the same opinion twice.
He is underwhelmed by vote-seeking lawmakers who grab headlines by creating unnecessary laws and punishments in response to high-profile crimes. The laws are often attached to a victim’s name. But because such efforts always get good press coverage and victim support, other legislators who know better are cowed into supporting them, he says.
“(These laws) are purely the result of legislators who cave in to public hysteria and pass anything that sounds like a tough-on-crime law.”
It’s difficult not to cringe at the brutality of some crimes, and a judge has to sit through all the evidence. Does that ever trouble your sleep?
“I never had a case where I was troubled by what it was, or the evil or depraved nature of it. It’s just like if you’re an emergency-room surgeon: You’d better get used to what you’re going to see.”
Mills says he didn’t form opinions about guilt or innocence of defendants in his court. That sounds a little unreal, but he says, “The first year or two, I probably did. After that I didn’t. If you’re doing your job as a trial judge, you have plenty of things to do besides decide guilt or innocence.”
You’re also human. How do you block that out of your mind?
“I don’t know. You just do.”
Generally, his judicial philosophy was for not putting people in jail for drug use, although drug dealers received little sympathy from him. He was most stern on crimes of violence and the abuse of animals.
Mills believes animal-abuse cases are not taken seriously by “the system,” and are often poorly investigated by agencies not properly trained. The district attorney usually plea bargains the cases because of the resulting weak evidence. Also, some jurors believe that offenses against animals are not that important.
Having witnessed the futility of drug prosecutions and punishments, Mills thinks most drug-use cases don’t belong in court, but rather should be the province of social services. Overall, he believes we spin wheels in our “war on drugs.”
“We have a large, powerful, expensive, governmental bureaucracy (drug enforcement agencies) that is difficult to challenge and possibly impossible to dismantle. Most politicians refuse to deal with the reality of drug use and the prosecution system. It would be a good idea to try something else.”
Mills says many slam-dunk-guilty cases go to trial because the defense’s only hope is that a conviction can be reversed later.
“Sometimes, serious felony cases go to trial, even though there’s no real defense. Everybody knows the defendant did it. The reason is, there’s no advantage to pleading guilty. The defendant can get, say, 100 or 200 years in prison if it goes to trial. If he plea bargains, he might get 80 to life. He’s never going to get out of prison either way.”
He says it makes sense for a defendant to insist on a trial in hopes of an appellate court reversal several years down the line, thus forcing prosecutors to retry the case. Then, it’s quite possible that circumstances such as disappeared witnesses make a retrial not winnable for the state, consequently freeing the defendant.
Mills is an admirer of juries and jurors. “I think jurors do a great job. I’ve seen, either as a DA, a defense lawyer or a judge, probably 700 jury trials. I don’t have a problem with what juries have done. Not in one of those cases.”
In jury deliberations, can one or two persuasive or aggressive jurors dominate the jury, even browbeat a weaker one?
“Definitely. I think that’s just the way it is. It’s just human nature. That’s why lawyers often have psychologists help them pick a jury.”
One of the more common matters coming before courts are requests for restraining orders that seek to compel a threatening person to keep his or her distance. Embattled wives and girlfriends, especially, see them as a defense against angry guys. Mills is unimpressed.
“Restraining orders? Do they work? Of course not. They only work if people want them to work, and in that case you don’t need them. They give a false sense of security. However, for some reason, police encourage people to get them.”
What is your opinion of the death penalty?
“I wish we had one. I think the death penalty is a really good idea. It’s been so messed up by the federal courts that, as a practical matter, California doesn’t have the death penalty. When I became a judge, there were something like 300 on death row, and now there are 800 or 900.”
He says the practical question is whether the district attorney should even seek the death penalty, because if executions don’t take place, it seems foolish to spend the money to pretend you’re going to.
Why the dispute over how humane the lethal-drug “cocktails” used in executions are? Is that just a pretext?
“It’s all nonsense. Pretext is a good word. It’s really just people and judges who are against the death penalty saying, ‘I’m going to find some reason to stop (executions).’”
That leads one to ask your opinion of judicial activism, of the charge that judges rule according to their political beliefs.
“It shouldn’t exist.”
Have you ever sentenced anyone to prison that you believed was innocent?
“No, because I wouldn’t send him to prison. I never sentenced anybody that I thought was innocent. The possibility of somebody (before the court) being actually innocent in a crime is a pretty remote possibility. There’s just very few where actual innocence is a serious issue.”
Mills says jurors expect innocent people to testify and guilty people to remain silent. Failure to testify adds a heavy burden on the defense to convince jurors of innocence. Because of that reality, he is amazed that defense lawyers routinely decline to have accused clients testify — in less than 25 percent of the cases he tried as a judge. In some cases, he says, the reason was prior convictions (that could be brought out in cross-examination), but in many others it was a poor decision or lack of preparation by defense lawyers.
Political appointees tend to hold on to sinecures with their fingernails. (The better the job, the deeper the fingernails dig.) Mills is sort of a throwback to the way public service was idealized by the founders: Do the job for a few years, then get out and go home.
The fact that he’s doing so with straight talk also means that many others will be glad to see him go, lest he set a precedent.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net His email is firstname.lastname@example.org