There's always a courtroom artist present when Judge James Aaron is on the bench.
It's Aaron himself.
Aaron, a Fresno jurist who recently spent time on the bench in this community about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, believes there is a need for humor in the courtroom.
"Judges are perceived as stern, unsmiling, unfeeling individuals and sometimes judges themselves act as if they believe this," Aaron said.
"There are many of us who don't know how to laugh at themselves," he said. "Nothing pleases me more than to be able to pop a hot-air balloon."
Cartooning "is part of my way of enjoying life," the 44-year-old judge said. And by relaxing the tense courtroom atmosphere, "I get at the truth better."
Aaron gets assignments throughout the state; those assignments include controversial or politically sensitive cases that local judges can't take.
"All Rise," a book of cartoons he published himself in 1982, has reached the hands of such luminaries as former state Chief Justice Rose Bird and television star Johnny Carson.
Aaron doodles on his note pad while on the bench, although his doodles aren't always lighthearted. During a hearing, for example, he might keep track of the lawyers involved with a cartooned outline of where each sat.
But his cartooning also caused some tense moments during a recent hearing in Fremont-Newark-Union City Municipal Court.
Fremont Judge Donald B. Squires had retaliated for an unrelated, good-natured but "uncomplimentary" cartoon of himself by Aaron--a longtime friend--with an equally jesting note declaring, "YOU DIE!"
Aaron, thinking he had received a real death threat, interrupted the hearing to denounce the note on the record. Later he learned the embarrassing truth. Aaron said that the affair showed "a couple of overgrown kids how a harmless prank can get out of hand."