Judge writes about her tough case in new book


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Should a judge who has reached a controversial decision, but one that is grounded in the facts of the case, reconsider in the face of public and legislative opposition? Does a judge who repeatedly makes decisions to prevent maternal visitation for a young child whose well-being was threatened by her mom’s rare mental illness have any obligation to the mother herself? What are a judge’s obligations when a defendant refuses an insanity plea recommended by her court-appointed lawyers, and eventually a jury trial and even an appeal?

And when a young person seems irretrievably enmeshed in addiction and the drug culture, but then upon receiving a second chance fails to comply with the court’s order, should he or she be given a third or even a fourth chance?

The final question is the one that faced Chief Judge Allie Greenleaf Maldonado, of the tribal court for Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

We are privy to what went through her mind and why she decided as she did because the dilemma is a chapter in the new book Tough Cases: Judges Tell the Stories of Some of the Hardest Decisions They've Ever Made, edited by Russell F. Canan, Gregory E. Mize, and Frederick H. Weisberg. The book includes a wide variety of difficult decisions faced by judges throughout the country, divergent in subject matter, geographic location, and ethical approaches.

Judge Maldonado says she was approached because the editors were looking for someone who had faced a tough case in the tribal courts.

“I participate in a Casey Foundation think tank on how we can reduce the number of Indian kids in foster care by 50%. The Casey Foundation” – for which Judge Maldonado has high praise – “brought together a group who they feel represent forward thinkers and invited them to imagine a different future.  I got to meet some really terrific people, and I guess my name came up when these editors reached out.”

Her well-written chapter weaves together the story of her mentor and the significance of cleansing a soiled white eagle feather (an important symbol in the Native American community), with the case of Salmon Running, the pseudonym of a 21-year-old addicted woman who brought drugs back to the Indian community. After Judge Maldonado granted Salmon Running a personal recognizance bond, she fled. When she was caught, the judge had to decide whether to trust that her remorse was real and overrule the team at the court’s Waabshkii Miigwan Healing-to-Wellness program who had rejected Salmon Running.

Judge Maldonado surprised everyone by sentencing Salmon Running not to jail time, but to probation with stringent conditions. Then, after a month, Salmon Running failed probation. But Judge Maldonado again goes with her heart and ordered her into the Waabshkii Miigwan program.

Ultimately, Salmon Running turned her life around. “She’s still doing well,” said Judge Maldonado in an interview this week. “This case was very impactful for me. It was a case that has helped me give other people a chance where maybe I wouldn’t have before.”

All three of the editors have chapters in the book as well. Judge Weisberg tells of a mother who had most apparently murdered all four of her children and then remained in the house with them for a minimum of three months. The judge’s dilemma is that the defendant declines first an insanity plea and then a jury trial; his ruling that she is competent to make such declinations brings the expected result that she is convicted.

Judge Mize writes about the fate of a child, Jenny, whose mother, undergoing divorce, is diagnosed as having the very rare Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, in which a caregiver continually causes illness in her loved one. As Jenny recovers from her sickness, and thrives after being placed with her father, Judge Mize refuses for years to allow the mother visitation rights. He wonders whether that was really in the child’s best interests – especially when the mother dies mysteriously, possibly a suicide.

The judge reaches out in later years to find that Jenny has blossomed into a fine young woman and is grateful for his intervention.

Additional chapters touch on the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case, the politically-charged L. Lewis “Scooter” Libby case, and the Cuban child custody case of
Elian Gonzalez.

The book, published by The New Press, can be purchased through Barnes and Noble and Amazon, among others.