The Responsibilities of Judgeship

The Responsibilities of Judgeship

Judge Rick Schreiner, District Court Judge in the 1st Judicial District since 2016, discusses the job of a judge - outlining the opportunities and limitations of the position.  Schreiner presides over both civil cases (where private citizens sue each other) and criminal cases.


>>The Responsibilities of Judgeship 
None of this is about me. None of this. This is all about being of service to the people in the State of Nebraska. And it’s a noble calling and to be selected to serve, literally serve, in this capacity is a great privilege. So I get out of bed every day extremely privileged. It is a lot of work. But incredible.

>> What Does a Judge Do? 
People come to me with their problems and ask me for a solution, and I have to listen to both sides fairly and consider both sides fairly. And one person will come to me wanting me to do something, and they have to bring me some authority for that. I don’t make decisions based on how I feel because my feelings change daily. And I can’t operate in that fashion. And I’m doing the work of the people, and people don’t want me to do what I feel.

The legislature defines what the law is, and the Constitution sets those parameters for the legislature when they’re crafting those laws. I’m bound by those laws. It’s not up to me to decide what the law is. It’s up to me to interpret it, to decide whether or not the parties in front of me have met their burden of proof in order for me to grant them the relief that they’re asking for to solve the dispute that they brought to the court. We want them to bring it to the court because we don’t want people solving disputes in the street with their fists. This is the civilized place to bring their disputes, and they trust the judges to solve those disputes fairly. And, by and large, although not everybody that walks out of a courtroom is happy, the suit is settled. The resolution is established, and everybody walks away. And they live with that. And that is the mark of a civilized society.

So… I don’t every day get to do or make decisions that please me. If I’m always making decisions that please me, then I’m probably not doing my job. And honestly, if I’m making decisions that please everybody, I may not be doing my job. So, that is the basic work of a judge. People, I guess, seem to think that -- and I see and I hear it, and I read it -- that judge didn’t sentence that person to enough time. And the legislators are the ones that establish how much time I can give somebody on an offense. And the legislature has also given me a set of rules that I have to apply in determining what that penalty might be in coming to that conclusion. And everybody’s treated differently. Because everybody’s an individual.

>> Ensure Fairness
How do I ensure fairness? It’s to treat everybody with respect; I hope -- I’m a human being -- sometimes we fail, and we don’t. But everybody should act respectfully in that courtroom. And I should be that example of how they should act. And… you know, as far as when we’re trying a defendant on a case, we’re not trying that individual for what he’s done his entire life. Nobody wants to be tried for that; we’re trying for that offense, or him or her for that offense, for which she’s been charged. That very specific set of facts, and that’s only what we are going to talk about in the jury trial. If there’s anything that might lead somebody to believe that that individual is guilty before they’ve heard the facts, then we want to avoid that appearance at all. And appearing in shackles in orange clothing, maybe somebody would come to the conclusion: well, if he’s in jail, he must be guilty. We need to remove that because that’s not something the jury should consider or that I should consider when I’m deciding the facts. So that is not one of the facts that are on trial -- whether or not he’s that individual’s in jail or not. So we want to maintain that dignity for that individual so he has an opportunity to defend himself. And not all defendants are popular. Many of them aren’t.

>> Misconceptions
I think maybe one of the misconceptions (about being a judge) is that most of my work is done wearing a robe and on the bench, which is completely untrue. About 30% of what I do is done on the bench. Maybe a little more, but the majority of my job is sitting at my desk reading briefs, researching the law, crafting orders, deciding cases that I’ve heard and taken under advisement. So it’s not all just sitting on the bench listening to cases and making decisions like Judge Judy does -- very smartly -- in a 30-minute session.

I have 90 days, I hear a case, I’ll have 90 days to make a decision on that case and issue a written opinion. And that doesn’t get done on the bench. So that’s probably maybe something people don’t know. It’s a lonely job. We have very few people we can talk to during the day. I have my bailiff, my court reporter, and the court staff, and otherwise, I see nobody unless I see them in the courtroom.

Everything that I say during the day is typed-up in a transcript. Everything that I say is recorded for purposes of appeal, so…that maybe is something that people don’t know.

You don’t have to agree with my decision. I’m a district court judge. I’m a trial court judge. If you disagree with a decision that I made, you have the right to appeal to the Court of Appeals or the Nebraska Supreme Court, and they can decide whether I’m right or wrong. If I’m right, it’s affirmed, and we all drive on. If I’m wrong, it will come back, probably with some directions to help us fix that. Or maybe it’s remanded for a new trial because I’ve made a mistake legally and just start over. We’ve worked very hard, and it’s a point of pride not to get reversed, so we put a lot of time into our decisions because we want to get it right the first time.

>> On Serving the People
The courtroom belongs to the people. In my courtroom, there are 13 pictures on the wall, former judges back to the 1800s. I’m just a placeholder -- just like they are -- and when I’m done, somebody else will come in and fill that spot. The courtroom belongs to the people. The Gage County Courthouse is where I operate, we have people coming in and all the time and they’re always, “um, “Oh, sorry to bother ya.” You’re not bothering me. It’s your room. It’s not mine. I just happen to work here. So the courtroom belongs to the people. We do the work of the people in that courtroom. And the courtrooms are open to the public. We’re getting to the point we’re starting to do some stuff by WebEx and more stuff like this. But we do the people’s work in that courtroom, and they’re welcome there at all times.