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Judge Tim Fall

Episode 020

Justice and Empathy

About Judge Tim Fall

Tim Fall is a Superior Court judge in Northern California. He also teaches judicial ethics to experienced judges throughout the state. In 2008, Tim faced contested re-election for his seat, which brought forth a battle against mental illness while he was on the campaign trail. Through support from family, friends, and medical professionals, Tim found success in both the election and his struggle with mental illness.

In 2019, Tim wrote a book about his experience in 2008 to help break down the stigma of mental illness and how it affects a person’s life. Through reading about his journey, he hopes that it can bring an understanding and empathy for the self and others.

Book available through Amazon and Audible: Running for Judge: Campaigning on the Trail of Despair, Deliverance, and Overwhelming Success

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Judge Tim Fall Quotes

  • “A news reporter called and left a message asking for my thoughts on my opponent running against me, and this was the first I had heard of it.”
  • “Some people say mental illness is all in your head, and my response is, ‘Well yeah, but a heart attack is all in your chest. You should still see a doctor anyway.”
  • “During the campaign, I lost 30 pounds and couldn’t sleep. And this is why I’ve shared my story. This way, people dealing with conditions like this don’t feel like they are on their own.”
  • “I’ve used my gavel once in 25 years because the room was getting loud.”
  • Tim Fall is a Superior Court judge in Northern California. He also teaches judicial ethics to experienced judges throughout the state.
  • In 2008, Tim faced contested re-election for his seat, which brought forth a battle against mental illness while he was on the campaign trail.
  • Through support from family, friends, and medical professionals, Tim found success in both the election and his struggle with mental illness.
  • Tim wrote the book Running for Judge: Campaigning on the Trail of Despair, Deliverance, and Overwhelming Success, to help share his experience with those who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and other diagnoses.

WHAT IS YOUR CONNECTION TO THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY?

I have a couple of connections. One is my son went to his freshman year of college at Azusa Pacific University, and my mother lived on the outskirts of the San Gabriel Valley.

I also do a lot of judicial education for judges who have served in and around SGV.

HOW DO YOU TEACH JUDICIAL ETHICS?

The canons of ethics for the judges in California are written down, and we teach judges what is in the ethics regulation.

One of the ways we do this is through a curriculum, which is a three-hour class that is rewritten every three years. We also require a couple of hours of elective ethics, separate from the three-hour class.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO JUDICIAL ETHICS?

I started with a committee called the Judicial Ethics Committee, which provided judges advice on a case’s ethics. They may contact us and ask about a certain connection with a case and if it’s permissible, or they may get asked to take part in a charity event, and they may need advice on what their level of participation can be.

Our committee would handle about 400 calls a year, answering ethics questions for judges.

It was an easy transition then to start teaching judicial ethics.

WHAT DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU HAD TO FACE RE-ELECTION?

You know, I first became a judge in the middle of 1995, and I immediately had to run for re-election in the March primary, but I ran unchallenged in 1996 and 2002, and in 2008, I had to run against someone.

It was pretty hair-raising because someone wanted to take my job away, and I had never run a campaign before.

It spiked my cortisol levels and affected me mentally and physically. I was so worn down that I got pneumonia.

HOW DID YOU FIND OUT THAT YOU WERE RUNNING AGAINST SOMEONE?

A news reporter called and left a message asking for my thoughts on my opponent running against me, and this was the first I had heard of it.

This phone call started my anxiety, leading to my pneumonia diagnosis and a general anxiety disorder with depressive orders diagnosis.

That was late January 2008, and the election wasn’t until June. It was quite an ordeal.

BEFORE THE RE-ELECTION BID, HAD YOU EVER EXPERIENCED ANY OF THESE SYMPTOMS BEFORE?

Yeah, I had a panic attack in Junior college (in 1978).

IS THERE MORE ABOUT DESPAIR YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT?

Stress affects the body in several ways, and one way is it messes up your brain chemistry. And for me, it was a daily event. It didn’t turn off until I won the election.

During the campaign, I lost 30 pounds and couldn’t sleep. And this is why I’ve shared my story. This way, people dealing with conditions like this don’t feel like they are on their own.

HOW SOON AFTER YOU FELT THE SYMPTOMS DID YOU SEEK MEDICAL HELP?

One of my friends immediately said he would help guide me through this. Another friend from church had worked with someone who was a professional campaign manager, and I ended up hiring him.

My wife was next to me the whole way.

All of this was immediate.

The medical help came a little bit later. I got the medical diagnosis on February 12th. He put me on an antibiotic, which didn’t seem to help. I was still feeling run down and tired and made another appointment with him.

During that appointment, he said that I had more going on, and we tried a few different anti-anxiety medicines before finding the one that worked for me.

DO YOU THINK YOU WERE AFRAID OF LOSING, OR WAS THERE AN UNDERLYING PROBLEM THAT THIS EVENT TRIGGERED THE ANXIETY?

Counselors and therapists say if you react to a trauma with an extreme response, it is likely the trauma ripped the scab off something else.

Your response is probably based on other things that are a part of your background or makeup.

ARE YOU IN THE CIVIL COURT OR CRIMINAL COURT?

In 25 years, I’ve done all the assignments there are to do: civil, probate, family, criminal, and juvenile. Right now, I’m in criminal, which deals with crimes from the lowest level of misdemeanors to first-degree murder trials.

HOW HAS THIS EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR EMPATHY LEVEL?

You know that’s something my wife said to me. It’s one of those things where you aren’t giving anyone a break or a free pass, but you recognize what’s going on with the person, and you can provide accommodations for people.

These accommodations allow them to present themselves in a fair manner in a courtroom.

One way this presents itself in the courtroom is that the attorney and their client are both facing me, so the attorney can’t see how their client is reacting.

Sometimes, I’ll say to them, “Counsel, it looks like your client might need to talk to you for a couple more minutes. Would you like to use one of the conference rooms outside?”

Then, later, the attorney will thank me for catching that and allowing them the time to help their client.

WE ASK PEOPLE TO BRING SOMETHING TO EACH EPISODE. WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE BROUGHT?

I would’ve brought my barn mallet, basically a supersized gavel.

DO YOU USE A GAVEL?

You know, one of the things we tell judges in the new judge orientation class is that if they have to use a gavel, they’ve already waited too long.

I’ve used my gavel once in 25 years because the room was getting loud.

I run a very tight courtroom. There’s no talking, and if there is, or if it gets too loud, I’ll stop everything and ask them to keep it quiet.

This one time, the courtroom kept getting louder. I looked at the bailiff and told him I’d be in my chambers until things calmed down and for him to handle it.

Everyone was so involved with their own conversations that they hadn’t even noticed I had gone.

The bailiff, who was 6’5 and 300lbs and knew how to handle himself, came back a few minutes later and said, “I think everyone is ready for you now.”

I came back into the courtroom, and there wasn’t a peep.

I asked him what he said, “All I told them was that they might notice that the judge is no longer on the bench, and he’s not coming back out until this place quiets down. That’s all I told them.”

And that’s better than me banging the gavel.

DO YOU HAVE ANY STORIES OF PEOPLE TRYING TO GET OUT OF BEING JURORS?

One guy talked about religious or philosophical reasons you can’t pass judgment on someone.

I first asked the question of this woman, and she said she couldn’t pass judgment. She was saying how she had never done it and didn’t know how to do it, and she was getting really flustered. I believed her because you could hear it in her voice and see how she reacted to the thought of judging someone.

I then asked the rest of the room, and the guy behind her said the same thing, but he was mimicking her, and you could tell he wasn’t being serious. He was very monotone and was repeating the words he thought would get him out of jury duty, but I wasn’t going to kick him off.

WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT SENTENCING YOU HAD TO DO?

It kind of falls into different categories. I’ve had situations where the law requires a lengthy sentencing, but I don’t feel like that is necessary, but I’m not allowed to change it.

If convicted of a low-level felony, the sentencing is one year and four months, a mid-level felony is two years, and the upper level is three years.

In very serious felonies, these triads can go to six, twelve, and eighteen years.

I can see the extenuating circumstances in some cases, but the person is still guilty, and I can’t change the level of sentencing.

Other times, the sentencing is hard because of the type of crimes that have been committed. Some of the causes involve torture and homicide, where going through the sentencing is something that weighs on a judge because of how serious it is.

I have had a few sentences that have been over 100 years and some that have gone over 200 years. Those are difficult because of the enormity of the crime and how difficult it is, and you need to get it done the right way.

And another way is if a serious case goes to appeal because of a sentencing error.

DO YOU GET CONCERNED ABOUT CASES GOING UP ON APPEAL AND GETTING REVERSED?

No, I get affirmed a lot. I think in over 25 years, I’ve had two cases get reversed. Other cases may come back in sentencing issues. Those get cleared up, but it doesn’t happen all that often.

I’VE HAD SOME EXPERIENCE DEALING WITH PTSD, AND I FIND IT AMAZING THAT WITH SUCH A SERIOUS JOB, YOU COULD CONTINUE WORKING THROUGH YOUR DIAGNOSIS.

Yeah, I think we’re getting away from looking down on people who have been diagnosed with these kinds of mental conditions. There’s much more support now.

 

SGV III

1. Azusa Pacific University & APU Family. One of my favorite things is that my son had a good year at Azusa Pacific. During his time there, I connected with Gail Wallace, whose husband was the president at Azusa while my son was there. We’ve talked a lot about writing and things like that over the years.

2. Old Spaghetti Factory. My son and I had taken three of his friends from Hawaii to the Old Spaghetti Factory. We got to introduce them to this icon of California.

3. Route 66. I grew up listening to Nat King Cole sing Route 66 and watching a TV show, Emergency, with the actor Bobby Troup, who wrote Route 66. The other thing about that show is Julie London, who was married to Bobby Troup, played the love interest of another doctor who wasn’t her husband.

Judge Tim Fall

Judge Tim Fall

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