Judge Lisa Gorcyca, a judge in Oakland County, Michigan, is getting quite a lot of press this week for sending three kids to juvenile detention.
Judge Gorcyca doesn't preside in criminal court. She doesn't rule on delinquency petitions in juvenile court. She's a judge in the Family Division. And she sent three kids to juvenile detention — and specifically ordered them separated — because they didn't obey her orders to cultivate a warm relationship with their estranged father.
Let's presume, for the moment, all facts in Judge Lisa Gorcyca's favor. This happened in a bitterly contested divorce. Let's assume that the father's account is true: that he never physically abused the mother of the kids, that the mother is a monster who has abused the legal system and turned the kids against him, that the kids are pawns in the mother's game to attack the father and deprive him of their company.
All those presumptions don't support Judge Gorcyca's freakish and contemptible behavior.
Consider the things Judge Gorcyca said to, and about, these children as she declared them in contempt of court:
To the 15-year-old, who didn't want to have lunch with his father because, he said, he saw his father hit his mother:
“You’re supposed to have a high IQ, which I’m doubting right now because of the way you act,” Gorcyca said.
“You’re very defiant. You have no manners … There is no reason why you do not have a relationship with your father. Your father has never been charged with anything. Your father’s never been convicted of anything. Your father doesn’t have a personal protection order against him. Your father is well-liked and loved by the community, his co-workers, his family (and) his colleagues. You, young man, have got it wrong. I think your father is a great man who has gone through hoops for you to have a relationship with you.”
. . . .
But to the boy, the judge said: “You need to do a research program on Charlie Manson and the cult that he has … You have bought yourself living in Children’s Village, going to the bathroom in public, and maybe summer school.”
To the boy's little sister:
A girl, 9, was asked if she would also like to apologize to her father, but she had no audible response.
“I know you’re kind of religious,” Gorcyca told the girl.
“God gave you a brain. He expects you to use it. You are not your big, defiant brother who’s living in jail. Do you want to live in jail?”
The girl said she would try to work with her father during visits, and Gorcyca told the children to go to lunch with their father.
“Let’s see, you’re going to be a teenager,” Gorcyca told the girl.
“You want to have your birthdays in Children’s Village? Do you like going to the bathroom in front of people? Is your bed soft and comfortable at home? I’ll tell you this, if you two don’t have a nice lunch with your dad and make this up to your dad, you’re going to come back here (after lunch) and I’m going to have the deputies take you to Children’s Village.”
Judge Gorcyca was very clear that she was imposing punishment for contempt of her orders regulating the children's interpersonal relationship with their father. Part of that punishment was separating the children, and preventing the mother's side of the family from visiting them:
“I’ll go with my brother (to Children’s Village) then,” he said.
Gorcyca said the boy would not be allowed to contact his brother at Children’s Village.
People are outraged about this. They ought to be. But they're outraged at the wrong evil.
Judge Lisa Gorcyca doesn't hate kids. She isn't some monster who has hidden sociopathy her whole career. The evil of Lisa Gorcyca — and people like her throughout America's justice system — isn't of the cinematic sort. It's banal. It's not the evil of wanting to hurt children; it's the evil of indifference to them. It's not the evil of bloodthirstiness; its the evil of petulance, the evil of mediocrity given power and then thwarted.
Judge Lisa Gorcyca has power because she's a judge. She's infuriated that her power is, for the moment, insufficient to make children do what she wants. She's not angry in the abstract because kids ought to have good relationships with their dads. She's apoplectic that children are disrespecting her power by not bending to her will. She's been elevated beyond her ability and character: given power, and lacking the maturity or intellect to wield it justly, reduced to snarling at nine-year-olds in excruciating family circumstances when (depending on whom you believe) they don't either suck up to an abuser or successfully resist an abuser's overwhelming influence.
We're conditioned to look for the black hat, the mustache-twirling villain, scowling theatrically and monologuing about their vile motivations. But evil's not that complicated. Evil is often petty. Rights are violated — children are jailed — not always because those in power set out with agendas, but because they cannot govern their mean and sordid instincts. And what happens? Judges, angry at having their egos bruised, issue ludicrous gag orders. Judges, outraged at being questioned, seek to hold critics in contempt. Judges treat their bench like a barstool, venting their unreflective biases like they are carved on stone tablets. Judges indulge their anger and jail a roomful of defendants because somebody's cell phone rang. Judges sentence people for drug violations while high on drugs. Judges jail kids for not going to lunch with their fathers.
We ask the wrong questions when we give people power. The question may not be "is she extremely smart." The question may not be "does he share my values." The question is "does this person view power over other lives as an entitlement, or as a tool to be used with the gravest concern and reluctance?" The question may be, "does this person have the strength of character to exercise power sparingly, the self-discipline to keep his or her basest instincts in check while wielding huge power over people's lives?"
Clearly Lisa Gorcyca doesn't.
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