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HomeNewsLocal newsInterview With U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller, Part 2

Interview With U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller, Part 2

The Hon. Ruth Miller said making the switch from a lawyer to a judge was “liberating.” (Submitted photo)

As U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller winds down her legal career, she reflects on media coverage, how making the switch from a lawyer to a judge broadened her legal perspective, and the kind of advice she might share with her successor at the District Court of the Virgin Islands.

R.M.: I have an interesting relationship with the media. Over time — sometimes — what the media sees is something very different from what I’m seeing from my position. I had one case where I made some decisions about a particular defendant. His attorney had filed a motion to change that — his conditions of release. Usually when attorneys file a motion they’re supposed to file a proposed order which sets up what’s next. Well, the reporter had picked up the order instead of the motion and thought that was my order.

Source: Was it signed?

R.M.: No.

Source: It couldn’t have been your order.

R.M.: Well, that’s my view. That’s what hit the paper, that I had ordered all of this, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness. I did?” (laughs)

So it’s interesting to me what different perspectives you get from sitting in the courtroom and listening to what happens versus when you’re sitting on the bench listening to what happens. I know it’s got to be a different perspective.

Source: That’s something to think about. I know that we sit there — those of us who come quietly, and try to listen as carefully as we can. Sometimes we research documents to see what matches, and after doing all of that and giving it your best effort you sometimes miss it by a hair, or there’s something that’s factored in that you haven’t taken into consideration, or you don’t have the experience to know this would come up.

R.M.: You’re missing a piece of the picture.

I could talk about this experience of being a judge all day long; it’s just so fascinating to me.

I grew up in a legal family. Even my mother was a lawyer, my mother and father met in law school. My grandfathers were lawyers, my uncles, there were a whole bunch of them. And I tried my darndest to stay away from it, but I’m not likely to say it’s in the blood too much. I would end up in medical school, but I ended up in law school.

All my life I have heard about things from an advocate’s perspective, and as a practicing lawyer for 28 years before I went on the bench I’d think about things from an advocate’s perspective. And being a judge is so liberating (going) from an advocacy approach to a what-is-the-right-answer approach.

Suddenly, you’re not beholden to one side or the other’s viewpoint. You’re trying to hear all of the sides, and take it all in and trying to find the answer — a fair answer, the right answer under the law.

To me, it’s a very liberating experience. I appreciated the opportunity to stop taking a side and trying to look at the bigger picture.

Source: What would be your advice for the next person who steps into your robe and sits behind your bench?

R.M.: That’s a very interesting question because pretty soon I’m going to be giving that advice. I would say do not assume you are correct and don’t feel afraid to expose where your questions are.

You have questions; you’re going to have questions about what’s presented to you. It doesn’t make you look like you’re not smart enough or that you don’t know everything.

Tell the parties they need to give you information. They need to teach you, so that you can make the right decisions. I remember my first time — first couple of times in criminal court. I handled a number of criminal cases next door when I was practicing because we all had to, and I did some over here as well but not a lot. I didn’t have the everyday exposure to criminal practice.

So when I got on the bench there were times when I was struggling. What am I supposed to do next? And I would say, “What am I supposed to do next? What do you think I should do?”  And if they thought I was silly, so be it, but I was going to learn from the people who do it. I didn’t feel afraid to expose the fact that I didn’t know everything under the sun.

You’ve got to always ask questions. There are a lot of lawyers who don’t always do this. You think you’re right all the time, and you have to accept that you might not be right. So you need to not be quite so dug into your position. Keep examining your position; keep looking at it from this direction, from that direction. Take a few minutes to think about it.

Source: I was going to ask you how you think the caseload had changed for the magistrate judge.

R.M.: The caseload, number-wise, has decreased in the last few years. And I understand from talking to judges in other districts it’s not just here, but it has slowed down some. I don’t know if that’s a relic of the pandemic or what that is.

The magistrate judge position keeps the court running. Where my caseload might not be so heavy I might absorb some from the district judge to help ease that load as well. There’s a lot that the magistrate can do to make a district judge’s life less complicated. They have to focus on the criminal, so we can pick up the slack on the civil side; get the cases set for trial, get the discovery done, they can settle sooner or they can prepare to go to trial.

So, that’s where the caseload is. The number of cases has gotten less but the responsibility per case has gotten more.

Source: Last question: What are you looking forward to doing as you’re slipping into retirement?

R.M.: I’m not entirely sure (laughs). I want to travel. My husband and I — there are places we’d like to go, people we would like to see. To spend more time with my limited family; I don’t have a lot of family. I’d like to see them more. I’d like to get back to playing golf some more if we still had a golf course (laughs).

Source: They have Carambola. Do they still have a golf course on St. Croix?

R.M.: Mahogany Run, since the storms, has been destroyed, so we would have to go someplace else to play golf, which is unfortunate. I’m looking forward to getting up in the morning and going, “Is there anything on my list today?” (laughs). I’ve been working since I was a teenager and it’s going to be different.

Source: So, no law school teaching? No visiting professor?

R.M.: I would love to do that. I used to do that … I love to teach in the context of this job. I do a lot of training for lawyers or when we have our brown bag lunches. I teach them stuff about writing, and the rules and all that. I’m going to be doing a couple of workshops at the Federal Judicial Center in April and July. I love doing that. That’s teaching college — the magistrate judge workshops.

So yes, I might be looking for something like that because that is right up my alley.

Related Link:

Interview With U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Miller, Part 1

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