Chautauquan, retired judge Rocker writes legal, philosophical thriller


Linda Rocker poses on the front porch of her Chautauqua home with a copy of her book, Punishment. Photo by Michelle Kanaar.

Joanna Hamer | Staff Writer

Linda Rocker’s first novel, Punishment: A Legal Thriller, begins with a bang.

“The book opens with a bombing,” Rocker said, which shakes the West Palm Beach courthouse where much of the book’s plot takes place.

Punishment, which Rocker published on the day she took full retirement from her position as a judge in Cleveland, takes cues from the author’s life and career.

A friend recently pointed out to Rocker that the bombing mirrored an event in her own life.

“They said, ‘Wasn’t your father in the Shaker Heights courthouse when it was bombed?’ and I said, ‘Look how the subconscious works.’ I had completely forgotten that, but in fact he was,” Rocker said.

Other facets of the book that reflect Rocker’s life are more than intentional. Her novel deals with issues faced by women in power and philosophical questions about the morality of legal cases or extralegal action.

Rocker’s father was a judge, impressing her early in life with a fascination of legal questions and moral dilemmas.

“What do we mean by justice?” Rocker asked. “Who gets punished? Do we start out with the punishment and then go back to whodunnit?”

Punishment opens a rare window into the behind-the-scenes lives of prosecutors, the prosecuted and judges, carefully explaining the motives and pressures that create eddies around legal cases.

“I very rarely had anyone in my courtroom who said, “Here I am — I did it, I meant to do it and I’m glad it’s done,’” Rocker said.

She has had several careers before novelist, including judge, lawyer and educator. She grew up in Cleveland and was assistant principal at Shaker Heights High School before changing course.

“When my daughter was entering the high school, I decided that being the person in charge of discipline when you have a daughter in the school is not going to guarantee her a pass to popularity. So I left, and I went to law school at the age of 40,” Rocker said.

When she was elected to the bench in 1989, she saw another side of the legal process and loved it, despite having to overcome issues associated with being a woman in power.

“My first year on the bench, when most of the lawyers knew I was new, this lawyer said to me, ‘I’d like to object, ma’am,’” Rocker said. “And I remember saying to him, ‘You may call me Judge Rocker, you may call me Judge, you may call me Honorable, and you may even call me Linda, but in this courtroom, you will not call me ma’am.’”

That scene makes its way into the book, voiced by a female judge. Two female judges are the book’s focal point, along with main character and bailiff, Casey Portman.

“She is a young woman who reflects my sense of what young women, including myself at one time, struggle with at a point in their lives where a career has not hit them solidly on the head,” Rocker said. “And they can’t decide whether they want the love track, or the career track. And there’s the whole discovery of their own sexuality, and personality and finding out who they are.”

When Rocker retired from the courtroom, she still worked as a visiting judge, though with fewer cases. She often became bored waiting in the chambers and began writing about her most interesting cases during recesses.

“It was putting even me to sleep,” she said. “So I said, let’s see if we can do something different.”

After enrolling in a writing course at Chautauqua, Rocker took the chapters she had begun in Cleveland and began crafting them into a book, which will be the first of a trilogy.

“I suddenly realized that I had a lot to say, and I could say it through character,” she said. “Without Chautauqua, I’m not sure I ever would have finished this book.”

The book is for sale in the Chautauqua Bookstore, and Rocker will sign copies today from 12 to 12:30 p.m. in the Author’s Alcove, celebrating the Institution that gave her the gift of time and place to write her novel about legal intrigue, coming of age and the morality of punishment.