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Book Review: ‘A Judge’s Odyssey’

Dean Pineles served as a Vermont Superior Court judge for more than 20 years. Then he left the Vermont bench and tried something new: he went to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia as an adviser on “rule of law” issues, in particular introducing jury trials to judicial systems that had not seen them before. Following those posts, he was appointed by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo to serve as a judge in the most serious criminal cases in that small Balkan country, including war crimes trials. Judge Pineles has now written a memoir of those experiences. 

The subtitle of his memoir “A Judge’s Odyssey (Rootstock Publishing, July 5, 2022) provides the synopsis: “From Vermont to Russia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, Then on to War Crimes & Organ Trafficking in Kosovo.” All of these countries were in transition from upheaval: the first three were, of course, former republics of the Soviet Union, intent on establishing themselves as independent countries; Kosovo, with its mostly Albanian-speaking Muslim population, had been part of Yugoslavia and then Serbia until, after the war in the late 1990s, the U.N. mandate was imposed and Kosovo later declared its independence. The book is filled with fascinating stories from these places, and the judge’s intelligence and ethical integrity shine through in the telling.

As Judge Pineles writes at the start: “Establishing the rule of law … can be satisfying and rewarding as a result of an occasional success story, but can also be extremely frustrating, with failures, unexpected emergencies, turf battles, duplication of efforts, corruption, local resistance, and personality conflicts.” The author describes examples of all.

The seriousness of the material — horrific tales of war atrocities and kidney “harvesting” — is leavened by the judge’s self-deprecating anecdotes of getting fall-down drunk with his Russian hosts, getting miserably lost on his way back to his apartment in Prizren, Kosovo, and getting embarrassingly desperate in the face of a so-called Turkish-style toilet. 

Judge Dean Pineles. Photo by Gillian Randall.
One delightful story emerged from the judge’s work in Georgia. In 2008, Judge Pineles escorted a dozen Georgian judges to the U.S. so they could witness criminal jury trials. In Providence, they were fortunate to find a jury trial in progress, a case concerning an alleged sexual assault of a nine-year-old child by her former stepfather, whom the girl had not seen since the incident two years prior. The young girl was on the witness stand, and spoke about the sexual assault, says Pineles, “with authority and credibility.” The prosecutor asked the girl to identify the perpetrator in the courtroom. The girl duly pointed across the courtroom in the direction of her former stepfather, identifying him as wearing a dark blue suit. The defense attorney then asked for the witness to approach the person she had identified, as the courtroom was large. “All eyes in the courtroom were glued to the girl as she nervously headed toward the defense table,” Pineles writes. “Courtroom drama at its best!” The girl “began to swing her arm directly toward the defendant as he sat motionless and tense. But wait. Her arm kept swinging slowly, and her finger passed by the defendant. When her arm stopped moving, her finger pointed directly at one of the Georgian judges, who was seated just behind the defendant and who was also attired in a dark blue suit. ‘That’s him,’ she said.”

One of Judge Pineles’s early cases in Kosovo involved a “loan shark” who had been murdered. Charged with the murder was a borrower who apparently owed the loan shark a large amount of money. The suspect’s house was searched and some evidence was seized, but it was all done without a warrant, as required by Kosovo law. Judge Pineles therefore suppressed the evidence obtained from the unlawful search. The prosecutor’s case collapsed and the defendant was released. The “ruling created a huge stir within the local law enforcement community, where traditionally the prosecutor and police were given free rein to do whatever they wanted.” A few weeks later, the suspect was gunned down on the street, the probable result, according to Pineles, of “blood revenge” in accordance with ancient Albanian tradition.

Impediments to the administration of impartial justice posed by nationalist fervor and historical grudges are illustrated throughout the memoir. “Judges,” Pineles writes, on the other hand, “are duty bound to be fair and impartial, and to make rulings and decisions that are well-reasoned, dispassionate, and respectful of the positions of the parties.” [page 29] In his memoir, Pineles repeatedly displays these virtues, and I am certain they contributed to his success as a fair and exemplary judge. But the virtues of a judge are different from the virtues of a memoirist. The best memoirs reveal the author’s personal commitments and vulnerabilities and passions. I wished for more of those traits in this book.

Take an early example. Pineles writes that he enrolled in Boston University Law School in 1965, “during the height of the very unpopular Vietnam War, and my primary motivation for going to law school was to secure another three years of deferment.”  As a student (or now), how did he feel about the U.S. war in Vietnam? We don’t know; he doesn’t tell us. Fast forward to the heart of the book: Kosovo, where the judge heard prosecutions of Kosovars accused of war crimes against Serbs during the brutal war a decade earlier, a war that ended after NATO’s intense bombing campaign. Did Judge Pineles support NATO’s attack on Serbia? We don’t know.

The judge, however, does take sides regarding a notorious incident early in his career. In 1982, then Vermont Governor Richard Snelling named Pineles as his general counsel. In 1984, under the governor’s authority, the state police raided a reclusive Christian community in Island Pond and seized 112 children before dawn, based on information that church members “allegedly engaged in physical abuse of their children by beating them with wooden rods.” By his own description, Pineles was deeply involved in the decisions leading up to the raid. No doubt state officials, including Pineles, were motivated by caring impulses. But it was a disturbing overreaction, a gross abuse of state power, as determined by the late Judge Frank Mahady, who held a hearing on the state’s request to detain the traumatized children and ordered them immediately released to their parents. Judge Pineles defends the raid. 

Worse, in my view, he makes an unwarranted accusation of corruption: that the late Thomas Hayes, who was then the chief administrative judge in Vermont (and later served on the Vermont Supreme Court) and a “fierce political rival of Snelling’s, had handpicked Judge Mahady expecting a specific result, which Mahady delivered.”  To support this troubling accusation, Pineles cites an account of the events told by a Northeast Kingdom lawyer in the Caledonian Record over thirty years later. I don’t know whether there is any truth to this account, but Pineles’s chronicle smacks of score-settling and does not meet the high standards of judicial reasoning and objectivity that the judge endorses throughout his book. 

These critiques pale in comparison to the judge’s achievements — working with extraordinary diligence and competence, in uncomfortable and often dangerous settings, to advance the fair dispensation of justice and the rule of law. The Vermont bar should be proud.