Separating the Judge from the Opinion: Is it Possible?

When someone rejects my proposed theory on something, I tend to take it as if they`re rejecting me personally. While I know this isn`t the case (I hope), it has been a powerful lesson in how I judge people who have opinions that differ from mine. And I think it can be a powerful lesson for those of us living in such a divided country right now.

Here`s a recent example. When I read one of Justice Thomas` opinion in a criminal case that`s loaded with what I see as the failed “tough on crime” mentality, I say to myself, “This guy just doesn`t get it.” That`s one of the nicer things I`m telling myself about him.

But the other day I read an opinion by Thomas on a non-criminal case and was rather impressed with his reasoning. I couldn`t believe it was the same guy. I had been judging Thomas` character — who he “is” — based on his ideas about criminal justice, and concluded that he`s a horrible person because of this. I began to question my negative opinion of him.

Can I separate Thomas` opinions from Thomas the person? Respectable judges and justices can do this. Take a look at a divided federal court of appeals opinion. Does the dissenting judge refer to the majority opinion as “Judge So-and-So`s” opinion, or as “the majority opinion?” Most of the time, the majority will refer to the dissenting judge`s opinion as the “dissent” or “dissenting opinion,” and the dissenting judge will refer to the “majority opinion.” They separate the judge(s) from the opinion. It`s not a personal attack on any judge.

There`s a lesson in this, I think, that we non-federal-judge people could learn about dealing with people who don`t agree with us. But, man, it`s hard not to take someone rejecting my idea as them rejecting me. Maybe that why I`m not a federal judge!

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