Judge Rae Lee Chabot

Society has a deal with judges. We don’t pay them very well — but, in exchange for salaries that are much lower than what they could earn in the private sector, they get to do whatever they heck they want. And get to be addressed as “Your Honor,” and wear really cool black robes.

One of the perks of judicial office is that it isn’t a nine-to-five job. Judges don’t have to punch a time clock; they come and go as they please. Court isn’t court until the judge takes the bench.

As long as a judge is reasonably current with his docket, he should be left alone. There is no face-time requirement for judges. (Sure, judges have to be on the bench for trials and oral arguments and such — but that’s not “face-time,” since the judge’s presence is actually necessary for the proceedings.)

In light of all this, I’m puzzled by the controversy over Judge Rae Lee Chabot. Judge Chabot has served on the Oakland County Circuit Court in Michigan for over 10 years.

Sure, the allegations about how she spends her days are amusing — and we’ll name her our Judge of the Day, just for the heck of it. But is there really a problem here?

It all started with an exposé by WXYZ, an ABC News affiliate:

[Judge Rae Lee] Chabot is on the defensive in the wake of an Action News Investigation into her courthouse work habits, and whether she’s earning her almost $140,000 salary.

Okay, hold it right there. Are we supposed to be impressed by the $140,000 salary, and outraged by Judge Chabot not busting her tail for it? As Above the Law readers know, even if laypersons do not, $140K is peanuts for someone who has been in the legal profession since 1977.

Courtroom insiders tipped us off, telling us that for years, Judge Chabot’s attendance at circuit court has been poor. With undercover cameras rolling, Action News started watching.

On a Thursday morning in March, just after 9:00am, Judge Chabot was slow to get to work. She didn’t leave her house until 9:10, and didn’t pull into work until a full hour after court is set to begin.

When she finally showed up around 9:30, Chabot spends a few hours on the bench, but shortly after 12:30, it’s time to leave the building. The destination is West Bloomfield’s Red Coat Tavern. And if you think the wheels of justice grind slowly, it turns out the wheels of lunch grind just as slow. Hours go by, and still no sign of her honor, until finally, just before 4 o’clock, she emerges, spending just as much time at lunch—a full three hours—as she did all day in court. After she paid her tab and headed out, our cameras saw her share a hug with her friend, and then head home.

Is this what we’re supposed to be outraged about? As long as Judge Chabot is getting her work done — and WXYZ concedes that she “is one of Southeast Michigan’s most well-respected judges, admired even by lawyers who come out on the losing end in her courtroom” — how long she spends at lunch really isn’t relevant.

Going home at 4 p.m. also doesn’t seem that troubling. How do we know she’s not working from home, as so many judges do? Some of the most highly regarded judges in the country work from home for significant chunks of the day. (Word on the street is that Judge Richard Posner, for example, often works from home in the afternoons.)

[On Friday, April 1, Judge] Chabot didn’t leave home until just before 11 o’clock. When she finally did, it was off to an office building on Orchard Lake Road. After an hour inside, there was other business to be done: at the Gap. It was a full forty minutes passed before the judge emerged from the clothing store, bag in hand. And after running a quick errand, it was back home.

Okay, now this is troubling. Judge Chabot shops at the Gap! For forty minutes at a time!

(In all seriousness, I like the Gap. As I type this, I’m wearing boxer shorts and a t-shirt from the Gap. But I still think spending 40 minutes inside a Gap store sounds worse than waterboarding excessive — we’re not talking haute couture. Perhaps Judge Chabot got stuck gabbing with a girlfriend, a common occurrence at the Gap.)

The controversy over Judge Chabot strikes me as grossly overblown. But in the wake of the original WXYZ coverage, a crackdown of sorts has been implemented:

Judge Rae Lee Chabot’s courthouse attendance is under review by her boss, Oakland County Circuit Court Chief Judge Nanci Grant, Action News has learned.

The decision was made within hours of Channel 7′s investigation Tuesday night that showed Chabot frequently arriving late to work, leaving early around Noon, taking lunches as long as three hours, and sometimes not coming into work at all.

Don’t be shocked if Judge Chabot, facing this new scrutiny, decides to leave the bench for private practice (where experienced judges like herself can make a mint doing ADR work). If she has to give up her three-hour lunches and start putting in facetime, then she’ll want — and deserve — a lot more than $140,000 a year.

Hopefully this shadowing of Judge Chabot isn’t the start of a larger trend. We have struck a deal with our judges, where they accept lower pay in exchange for power, prestige, and highly flexible schedules. Aren’t judges entitled to the benefit of the bargain?

Oakland Co. judge spends most of work day at lunch, shopping before heading home [WXYZ.com]
Judge Rae Lee Chabot’s attendance under scrutiny following Action News investigation [WXYZ.com]
The Gap [Saturday Night Live via Hulu]


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