The Ottumwa Courier

February 1, 2012

Ruling under the law

Court Calls

Judge Joel D. Yates

SIGOURNEY — Each day, I try to read at least one newspaper. I am always amazed by the mysteries of free will. Free will and personal choice profoundly affect each of our lives and those around us. Often the decisions individuals make result in them being placed in front of a judge, and this drives much of our court’s dockets.

It is every parent’s nightmare: a momentary act can result in a lawsuit or criminal charges. It is so unpredictable what an individual might do or the choices they might make.

Trial judges are often asked to look into the future. When sentencing a defendant, the judge must consider both how best to rehabilitate the defendant while also factoring in how best to protect the public. Free will makes predicting future human behavior risky at best.  

Laws passed by the Legislative Branch and implemented by the Executive Branch also must be factored in. While it is a good thing that the Judicial Branch is constrained in our system of checks and balances, it can be frustrating when the law does not afford a judge the opportunity to tackle a problem brought before the court. Persons who appear before judges plead for help, they need it, and the community conscience says, “Give them the help they need,” but the law sometimes prevents the judge from granting the relief. From personal experience, this frustrates the judge and tries the professional strength of the judge. But it is a necessary restraint in our American system which balances power among the three branches of government.  

In real life when people are empowered with hindsight — perhaps after a tragedy occurs — they sometimes are puzzled by a court ruling. Why did the judge do this and not something else? Or why didn’t the judge prevent this from happening? The human reaction is unavoidable and understandable. Yet, to fully understand the court’s actions, it is important to view all surrounding circumstances. What did the law allow the judge to do in this particular situation? What role did unpredictable “free will” play?

Iowa has a well-respected judiciary, but our judges are not clairvoyant. We also recognize that we do not have license to reign supreme over the other branches of government. Judges, like everyone else, must follow the law under our federal and state constitutions.  

Judge Yates lives in Sigourney and presides over civil and criminal cases in Judicial District 8-A. He may be reached at