In Your Court: write Santa, but not the judge

Judge Steve Halsey

During the holiday season, little citizens write to Santa with a list of the presents they would like. Adult citizens sometimes write the judge about a pending case and the result they would like. But they should not write the judge.  In this article I will discuss what judges are not.

Judges are not like township officers, city council members or county commissioners. Judges do not weigh in on political issues unless there is a “controversy”, that is, a lawsuit, filed in court for them to hear and decide. 

Quite frequently family or friends of a person involved in a criminal or civil case, either as a party, witness or victim, will write a letter directly to the court expressing their opinion and asking for a particular result. These letters are called “ex parte” communications, i.e., a communication to a judge not served and filed by an attorney for a party pursuant to the rules of court. Judges ethically cannot consider ex parte communications and cannot act upon them. 

Frequently family members of a criminal defendant or victim will write a letter directly to a judge asking that the judge be lenient — or even harsh — at sentencing. Such letters must be disregarded under the rules of judicial ethics.  Sometimes people will stand up in the audience in court and want to be heard. Judges cannot be lobbied by non-parties like members of the legislative branches of government. Constitutionally-protected due process of law prevents such communications from being considered by a judge.

Judges are not social workers or probation officers. Sometimes parties without lawyers will come into court and say, “Judge, I need your help.” It is not the judge’s role to help parties in a lawsuit to reach a certain result. In fact, it is unethical for judges to assist unrepresented parties as a lawyer would do.  This becomes a cause of considerable frustration for many people who cannot afford a lawyer. 

The Rules of Court have been created and interpreted over many decades to provide due process to parties involved in lawsuits. The Rules of Court apply to parties whether or not they have a lawyer. 

A gentleman in court became upset when I told him he needed to follow the court rules. He said, “Come on!  Give me a break!” He wanted me to tell him he didn’t have to follow the law. 

While judges may allow unrepresented parties to commit minor failures to follow the rules’ timelines when there are no adverse consequences to the opponent, we can’t throw out the rule book entirely. A judge is like a baseball umpire. If the batter has a .210 batting average, the umpire cannot whisper to the batter, “the next pitch is gonna be a curve ball,” in order to help him raise his average. Judges are not in the business of “social engineering,” that is, curing the social ills of society through our decisions.  Judges decide individual cases of individual people, businesses and governmental entities based on the individual facts and the applicable law.

Judges aren’t police officers. In the past the media has been critical of judges when a criminal defendant is released on what is perceived to be “low” bail and then commits another crime or flees the state. Judges do not initiate action against such defendants. Prosecutors make motions to the court for arrest warrants for such defendants and when the warrant is issued they have it. Prosecutors are a part of the executive branch; judges are not.

—Wright County District Court Judge Steve Halsey is chambered in Buffalo. He also maintains a blog at

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