The Angry Judge and the Paperclip

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A routine day in court turned into quite a spectacle. I was in Judge Nameless’s courtroom to file a motion. I presented the motion to him, an original and two copies as required by the local court rules.  Judge Nameless looked at the motion, stared down at me from his elevated bench in the courtroom and said: What is this?  Without hesitation I replied, a motion for continuance your honor. He snorted back: I can see that. Where is the regular form? And then, he jerked the paper-clipped original from the copies with such force that the paper clip flew up into the air and landed ten feet away next to the court reporter. I had apparently committed a grievous mistake.

The judge objected to my audacity to use a paperclip to hold the copies with the original instead of that court’s special preprinted form. The special form was a product of 1980’s technological wonder which attached the original to the copies with adhesive at the top and imprinted the copies as you filled in the original. It was that lousy paperclip! Don’t get me wrong, to this day I am no fan of paperclips. What other inanimate objects have the ability to attach themselves to one another, multiply and hide like chameleons when you need one?

There I stood, a young attorney, in front of the courtroom facing this angry judge with the courtroom full of other attorneys behind me waiting their turn. In my most respectful voice I uttered: I apologize your honor; our office was out of the preprinted forms. He glared down at me and barked: Don’t apologize to me counsellor. You should apologize to all of the other attorneys in the courtroom whose time you are wasting. I was tempted to say, You are the one wasting time Your Honor. But, I could see he was dead serious. So I turned faced my colleagues, many older, and stuttered a quick, my apologies. What I saw was a room full of sympathetic, stunned faces.

Judge Nameless, sensing that his control over all things in his courtroom, if not the universe, had been restored, granted my motion and called for the next case. As I walked out of the courtroom I recall seeing many of the attorneys removing paper clips from their documents.

The vast majority of my experiences with judges have been much less eventful. They are well-trained professionals who take their jobs seriously and work hard to be fair and follow the law. But they are people like the rest of us, subject to the same emotions and personal issues we all face. So they have bad moments too. Judge Nameless didn’t hurt my reputation or feelings that day. He gave me a new war story to tell and I understand he still holds the record in the courthouse for paperclip launching distance.

Hate. A Bullet. What Makes a Criminal?

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It was the middle of the night and Mr. James, (a fictional name) an African American man, was asleep in bed with his wife. Their baby was asleep in another room of their rented house. A man and some of his friends stood outside and shouted racial slurs and menacing taunts to scare the family. It continued for some time. When Mr. James reached his breaking point, he got his handgun and fired in the direction of the men outside from his second story bedroom window.

A few days later a friend of Mr. James who was helping him raise money for a lawyer called me and asked whether I would represent him. One of the bullets Mr. James fired had hit one of the men and damaged his spinal nerves. He was now paralyzed from the waist down, maybe forever. Mr. James had been charged with attempted murder and other lesser charges.

I had known Mr. James casually for over 10 years. He was a big man with a reputation for being kind, cheerful, respectful and hardworking. Why didn’t he call the police instead of firing his gun? Did he intend to kill or injure one of the men or just scare them away?

During the first ten years of my general practice of law, I handled criminal cases. The people I represented were children, men, women, white, black, bi-racial and ethnically diverse. The cases ranged from minor offenses to felonies. The clients were alcoholics, drug addicts, smart, intellectually challenged, mentally unstable, mean, victimized, hateful, repeat offenders and average people who made a single bad decision. Their actions were hurtful, dangerous, damaging, sometimes devastatingly so and often to themselves. They stole and destroyed. Many seemed sorry only that they had been caught.

Mr. James went to prison but not for attempted murder. Lives and families were destroyed that night. I have never been in a situation like the one Mr. James and his wife faced and I never will be as a result of my genetics or my birthplace.  I am a white male firmly rooted by birth, education and genetics in the middle class without mental disease or addiction, except for nicotine addiction for twenty years.  I had little in common with most of the people I represented in criminal cases.

At the time I did not understand what caused or motivated these people to do these things.  I admit that privately I often negatively judged them and their actions. That was counterbalanced and, I hope, overcome, by my competitive desire to obtain the best possible outcome in each case and my belief that every person deserved effective legal counsel. My inner struggle eventually led me to stop handling criminal cases.

At the time I lacked any significant knowledge of how poverty, racial and ethnic prejudice and genetics can stack the deck against a person’s success in our country’s educational, economic, judicial and political systems. Over the years our legal system and I have gained more knowledge about the effects of these conditions on people. Looking back I realize that my personal judgments were formed, in large part, out of ignorance. I never stood in their shoes. Practicing law has taught me that I will never know enough to be anyone’s judge.