The Honorable F.P. Segars-Andrews leaves the family court bench soon. To read some comments on the internet there were a number of litigants extremely angered by her decisions. Over the years I have had more than one client greatly upset by one of her rulings. Yet I have always defended her to my clients and continue to hold her in the highest regard. A public appreciation is in order.
Judge Segars-Andrews was appointed to the family court bench in 1993, the same year I opened my practice. Thus her time as a judge has paralleled my time as a family law attorney. Over the years my appreciation for her has grown immensely. There are two reasons for this. First, my views of what qualities are important in a judge have changed over the years, and her strengths as a judge align with areas I value more highly while her weaknesses as a judge are in areas I value less. Second, I have been a first-hand witness to the personal qualities she brought to her role as judge and she personifies public service and religious faith in their best light.
If you had asked me in my early years of practicing family law what qualities one needs to be a great judge, I would have ranked them: 1) integrity; 2) legal knowledge; 3) experience; and 4) judicial temperament. If you asked me today, after seventeen years of practice, I would rank them: 1) integrity; 2) judicial temperament; 3) legal knowledge; and 4) experience. One almost has to rank integrity as the most important quality in a judge. The system cannot tolerate judges who take bribes or show favoritism. That’s the reason the Judicial Merit Selection Commission attacked Judge Segars-Andrews’ integrity in seeking to defrock her [I have seen no evidence that would justify their determination]. In my early years I valued legal knowledge just below integrity and, on that factor, I would simply note that Judge Segars-Andrews and I have not seen eye-to-eye on many legal issues, and that I have had some success with the appellate court regarding her decisions. However temperament is vastly more important to being a judge than I realized when I first started my practice. And Judge Segars-Andrews is the model of judicial temperament.
Our culture sometimes forgets that “trial by law” isn’t something that emerged full-blown when humans left the African savannah. For much of our history disputes have been resolved through “trial by combat” or “trial by ordeal.” We tend to think that dispute resolution through trial by law is superior and lawyers, being invested in a system of law, tend to hold that belief even more strongly. But there is nothing inherent in a courtroom that makes it a superior venue to resolve disputes over an arena of combat.
What makes the courtroom the superior venue is that, in a courtroom, everyone is supposed to be treated with dignity and their viewpoints are entitled to respect, even if their viewpoints are ultimately rejected. When the law starts treating some people with more dignity than others (for example, contrast the law’s current discourteous treatment of criminal defendants with its solicitous treatment of crime victims) the respect we expect citizens to have for the law breaks down. One reason we treat civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 60’s as heroes rather than lawbreakers is that we recognize that the law had no right to expect fealty from those to whom it would not treat in a dignified manner.
When it comes to treating the people who appear in her courtroom with dignity, Judge Segars-Andrews was simply without peer. While I have seen her become exasperated with folks appearing before her, I cannot recall ever seeing her treat anyone in her courtroom with disrespect. When I first started practicing there were a few judges whom one could almost expect to be uncivil at some point in any proceeding. Even today there are some judges from whom I can expect, if the hearing or trial will be lengthy and contentious, a moment of officious incivility. But not with Judge Segars-Andrews. I walk into her courtroom with the certainty that the proceedings will be dignified and that everyone will be treated with courtesy. Such an atmosphere makes the practice of law feel like a noble calling rather than a grind.
Among the personal qualities I have most appreciated is her efforts towards the betterment of the law. Judge Segars-Andrews simply cared. A friend of mine tells a story of a juvenile proceeding he had in front of her. A troubled teenage boy had the opportunity to take part on a sailing crew to the Carribean over a winter break, with the hope that this experience would teach him teamwork, responsibility, and self-reliance. His family was of limited means and had no money for the return flight. No public agency or private charity had funds for the flight. Judge Segars-Andrews reached into her own pocket to purchase this boy’s return ticket.
Knowing her as I do, I do not find this story surprising. Like many elected South Carolina officials, Judge Segars-Andrews is open about the importance of faith to her life. However, in the best religious tradition, she allows her actions to attest to her faith rather than relying solely upon proclamations of faith. My perception is that this faith is instrumental in her uniformly-dignified treatment of those who came before her. My perception is also that this faith compels her to work for the law’s improvement.
Judge Segars-Andrews has always been generous with her time with young lawyers and prospective lawyers. When I am mentoring attorneys or students considering a career in family law, she has always been my go-to person when I wished to expose my mentees to an acting family court judge. She has been a frequent presenter at family law seminars I have organized. She has been instrumental in implementing Charleston County’s drug court and the Abuse and Neglect mediations.
My experience as a volunteer mediator has been telling. These mediations typically take place on Fridays with the last mediations scheduled to begin at 11:00 a.m. The whole philosophy of mediation is to give litigants time to be heard and not pressure them into resolution; a rushed mediation vitiates the concept of mediation. Thus, as a mediator, I try to avoid rushing or pressuring litigants and I will continue mediating so long as progress towards resolution is being made.
South Carolina judges do not have an afternoon docket scheduled on Fridays so, typically, they are free to begin their weekend when their morning docket is finished. There has been more than one occasion in which I have been rushed doing these volunteer mediations because the judge wanted to begin his or her weekend. While I completely understand this desire, I find such behavior unfathomable: I am doing volunteer work that is cutting into my weekend and a paid official in a respected position cannot be similarly patient? Judge Segars-Andrews has never once rushed me or made me feel under a time constraint while doing these Friday DSS mediations. Her attitude reflected an ingrained understanding of the nexus between law and dignity. She viewed our work (as judges, as lawyers, as mediators, as guardians) as helping people resolve conflicts that would otherwise be resolved in a less ennobling fashion. She would never expect someone to rush that process for her convenience.
A closing war story: A few years ago, I was the guardian ad litem for a very young child born to a sixteen year old mother with severe mental and physical limitations. Ultimately, the child was placed with her great aunt, which I considered a stable and loving placement. However problems unrelated to the aunt arose and DSS, without my knowledge, took emergency custody of the child and placed the child in foster care. At a probable cause hearing DSS (for reasons I cannot recall) believed there was a procedural problem with placing the child back with the aunt and suggested leaving the child in foster care until we could get back to court. Judge Segars-Andrews was about to do this when I asked her if I could be heard. While I try to stay unemotional in court, I had found the whole hearing very upsetting (because I had found my client a stable placement and this stable placement had been changed without my knowledge and then not been corrected due to procedural issues). I cannot recall exactly what I told Judge Segars-Andrews but I know she heard how upset I was and how concerned I was that procedural problems were being allowed to keep a young child from a stable placement. I cannot even recall how she overcame the procedural problem. I only remember that she heard me, and that the child was back with her great aunt by the end of the day due to her resolution of the matter. Not every judge would have taken the time to try to find such a resolution but I think that every day Judge Segars-Andrews was on the bench she remembered that these are often small children whose lives we are dealing with and it is vitally important to take the time to get it right and protect these children.
While I wish her the best in her future endeavors, I will miss practicing in front of Judge Segars-Andrews.