The Kids’ Judge

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Lindsey was not trying to supplant the family. He saw its guidance role as paramount, and he advocated—and helped secure—“contributory delinquency” laws that gave his court jurisdiction over parents who did not appropriately train or restrain their children. This involved the court in family counseling, from which, however, neither parent nor child emerged with a criminal record. Lindsey recognized that impoverished parents themselves were not always responsible for their negligence: “I saw through the tears and misfortune of these children, the defects and injustice in our social, political and economic conditions.”

Those conditions he tried to change. His efforts included job searches for his “kids” and well-publicized crusades for things like public baths and playgrounds. He took his probationers to ball games, picnics, shows, and other amusements but did not fail to lecture them on the perils of evil thoughts and associations and the duties of self-help, self-denial, and hard work.

Crusading was his specialty. Lindsey’s major fault was a habit of acting as if he stood alone in his battles. But his self-promotion had an object—namely, to win popular support for his views. To do that, he maintained, one had to “grandstand with a megaphone.” He held open hearings at which reform-school graduates told horrifying tales of sexual and other abuses. He launched headline-grabbing attacks on “wine rooms” where teenage girls were initiated into prostitution. (He left female young offenders, however, to the attention of court-appointed women.) By these brassy means he got his juvenile court formalized as a regular element of the Colorado judicial system. Eventually all other states followed suit. By 1915 he was a national figure, known as the “kids’ judge,” traveling and lecturing, a bright star in the progressive constellation. He was the subject of magazine articles and shook hands with Theodore Roosevelt. For every opponent like the president of Cornell, Andrew D. White, who deplored the “sickly, mawkish lenity to crime and wrong,” Lindsey had many friends who, like Sen. Robert M. La Follette, told him: “Your audience is now the entire country…. You have the … confidence of a vast majority of people. Be true to them and your future is assured.”

The president of Cornell deplored Judge Lindsey’s “sickly, mawkish lenity to crime and wrong.”

But it was not. Lindsey’s subsequent career was a spectacular flameout. His interest in families, plus a postwar attraction to popularized Freudianism, led him to become a strong advocate of family planning through contraception, which earned him new hostility. In 1927 he published a bestseller, The Companionate Marriage , advocating marriage that could be quickly and easily dissolved if there were no children, a kind of judicially sanctioned cohabitation, shocking to those who saw the Jazz Age as flushing American morality down the drain. He lost his judgeship in a close and contested election (influenced by the Ku Klux Klan). Later he was disbarred, in another hotly disputed proceeding, for alleged violation of judicial ethics. He finally moved to Southern California in the thirties and was once more elected a judge. He died, full of years and fight, in 1943, aged seventy-three.

The juvenile-court system eventually came under attack from oddly disparate sources. Conservatives objected to its “coddling” practices. But there was also criticism from the left—to wit, that whereas adult law is at least precise, the “therapeutic” treatment of juvenile offenders puts their freedom and rights in the hands of unelected “experts” and bureaucrats.

All the same, I think Lindsey is rather heroic, warts and all. It is easy to argue that there will always be crime while there are idle and violent young men around and that the “cure” is to lock them up. But I know as a historian that such prescriptions have been tried before, and if they worked at all, they worked mainly for already comfortable citizens, who found it easy to put both the circumstances of the criminals and the causes of their crimes out of sight and out of mind. I think it says good things for American values that there were people like Lindsey who shouted, “No!”