legal system

The Judge Who Presides Over a ‘Social Emergency Room’

Judge Patricia Joyce. Photo: Julie Smith/AP

Patricia Joyce, 61
Circuit Court Judge

Jefferson City, Missouri

I often call the court a social emergency room. Family disputes take up about half our caseloads nationwide, which is not something that most of us have been professionally trained for.

A lot of times when I’m doing divorce cases I see people who are in incredible debt and they’re splitting up because of the stress. Trying to figure out how either of them are going to live — with the kids or without, depending on who gets them — often seems really hopeless. I find myself thinking: How do you move forward from the agony of going through a separation and a divorce and the stress on the kids to then figure out financially what can you do, how can you make it right when all the money’s gone? We deal with so much drug and alcohol addiction or mental illness and there’s just not enough resources to help broken people become whole.

I’ve been here practicing in the same community, in the same courthouse, for 38 years. You see the same people over and over again, and you see different generations of the same family so sometimes you see glimmers of hope, even some success stories — they learn something or do something different.

Growing up in the ’60s, we didn’t have any money. My dad worked at a grocery store and you knew he wished for more. I had two maiden aunts and a godmother who made me feel really special. The university was just five blocks away from our house and you could constantly hear the bells chime. These women would say, “You’ve got to go to university.” Mom was the fifth of seven and was the only one to finish high school even though she lost both her parents to heart attacks by the time she was 14. I couldn’t sing, had no rhythm, and was the last one picked for every team. As I went through high school I was just way too smart for the boys. I knew I was going to go to school, I knew I was going to do well, and that nothing was going to stop me.

I look back at that girl and she’s not much different from the woman I am today. I was outgoing. I knew that if you treat people well and keep a sense of humor it’ll work out. My dad was a jokester. Mom laughed a lot, too. We weren’t raised to believe that we were so important that we were always going to be taken seriously.

When I was about 13, Bobby Kennedy made a trip to Cape Girardeau for a rally. I got to shake his hand and that really piqued my interest in news. And then MLK was assassinated, and the Vietnam War was going on. I began to think about the law and the ways you can make some social justice changes and give people a voice.

As a young judge I would want to jump in and fix problems when I saw things outside the courtroom that I thought I could help with. But I learned early on that I had a specific role as a lawyer and then a prosecutor and then as a judge.

As a prosecutor or as a lawyer you’re focused on getting a “win.” When you’re arguing a case and you do well and the jury finds with you, that’s a really great feeling, that’s an adrenaline rush. As a judge, the good feeling is more of a slow burn, a satisfaction.

A trial is really a very formal meeting with a very formal agenda about what can come in and what can’t come in. There are so many rules. It’s almost like being a surgeon in the sense that it’s intense, but you put that aside. You know what your responsibility is: You just have to always get back to, what are the facts? What is the evidence? It’s what you practiced to do. It’s what you’re skilled to do.

Back in 2000, I was doing a probate case with family members fighting and the court was just full of family, generations, arguing. At the end I said, “Is there anybody else who wants to say something before I’m done with the case?” A guy raises his hand, and he wanted to talk about something that had happened ten years earlier. I said, Sir, I just can’t hear that right now, and he goes, “Well, do you want me to take out my teeth?”

So yes. It’s emotional. But the thing to remember is that the law sucks the life out of everything.

As a judge, I’m a mediator. It shouldn’t matter how I personally feel or which person is in front of the law. So, as I got older and I became more reflective, I gave up some rights — rights to speech and commenting on some things.

If I said the things to people that celebrity judges on TV say, I’d be off the bench lickety-split! People don’t say those things in court. If I get someone acting that crazy or aggressive I say, “Hey, stop. Tone it down.”

I don’t enjoy being in the middle of disputes. Life is too short. If someone wants advice, my first question is, well, what do you think you should do? People usually know the answer. They just want affirmation. And if people own the solution then they can better fix the problem.

Some people just want someone to disagree with them so they can argue. They’re not really arguing a position or what they think is right. Most disputes are personality-driven and you can’t fix someone’s personality.

Sometimes when you’re in a jury trial you listen to the evidence and hear the decision and occasionally — just occasionally — you’ve got to sentence someone to prison and you know the evidence isn’t very strong and it could have gone either way. It’s sad to have to be there in the middle of everybody’s problems.

As a judge, or at least, early on as a judge, you wonder about that person you put on probation who went out and messed up badly. You think, will I hold myself responsible for other people’s conduct? Their decision-making skills are their decision-making skills. I learned that I’m not responsible for people. I make a decision and that’s where I leave it. I don’t spend time on media, I don’t look at blogs. It’s not productive. If I want to be anxious about people I’d rather be anxious about the people I love.

To work through times like that, I’ll talk to people in the courthouse, but the decision really rests with me. It’s my responsibility. Occasionally I’ll talk to my husband. When I am really under stress I clean my house. I like having control over something that’s not in my head.

I’ve certainly had moments of questioning: Do I want to keep doing this? You just occasionally go through some darkness. Sometimes those periods have lasted for a month or two. You’re hearing the same stories over and over again and maybe you’ve had a particularly bad case, not just one that was all over the media but one that was particularly emotionally draining. And yes, I do think: I don’t know if I can do this much longer.

But at some point, someone will thank me, or I see something that reminds me I helped people who needed me. I can’t remember ever staying in the darkness very long. I give this advice: If you don’t like the job you’re doing, do something else. Get out.

There are days I feel incredibly blessed to have a job that has enabled me to help people, that has kept me really engaged on all levels: intellectually, emotionally, socially. When I get to try cases instead of doing the other stuff I think, this is a good job. Yes, I enjoy my job.

I was first elected associate circuit court judge in 94. The campaign was so exciting. My children went door-knocking with me and came to parades. I remember some of my kids were stuffing envelopes and one of them got mad that they weren’t involved and put some stickers on the wallpaper.

My mom and my sister came to be with me while I waited for the verdict. I had trouble focusing. I was so nervous, the democrats had done so badly that year. I got my hair done and had some wine. I rented Gone With the Wind but couldn’t sit still. When we heard the news we had a little party. My sister was so happy she drank beer with her feet. My dad died before I got through law school, but my mom and all my aunts were there, every inch of the house had a kid lying in it because we were too cheap to get a hotel. I had nearly lost my voice. I was exhausted but I remember mom saying how proud my dad would have been.

The Judge Who Presides Over a ‘Social Emergency Room’