A lesson on jurisprudence, kindness, civility, addiction and other simple subjects.
Maybe it was parenthood, maybe it was riding a city bus to and from work, maybe it was the election coverage during the year of Swift boat attacks and duct tape and backpack checks and questions about patriotism, but I can’t recall a time where I felt more civically engaged than I did during the fall of 2004. There seemed to be hope in every next step. Or maybe it was just being in a building filled with other people’s misery that made my own life feel and seem and be so spectacular.
2004 was a time of upheaval for my wife and me. I graduated from law school in May, spent the summer studying for the bar exam, started a clerkship for a Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge in August, spent nights painting the nursery and buying baby accoutrements. Our son was born in September and my Grandma died in October. These were all firsts: my first child, my first job post-law school, the first time I had a grandparent pass away and the first time I had to confront mortality.
The job was going great. I enjoyed being the Judge’s right hand man: he was nice; he was funny; we were aligned politically; he loved baseball; he already knew the answers to most of the questions he asked me.
During the first six months of my clerkship, the good judge oversaw a criminal docket. My job was to coordinate the couple dozen or so cases we had each morning with state’s attorneys and public defenders and determine which defendants were ready for trial, which were taking pleas, and which were requesting postponements. Judge would come onto the bench and for the next few hours, entertain requests for jury trials or pleas or postponements. Pleas meant listening to prosecutors and defense attorneys lay out conditions of pleas, hear the pleas of those pleading guilty and then sentence them. The cadence of that which the defense attorneys were constitutionally required to apprise their clients provided a nice respite from the cacophony of the chaos. Sentences included incarceration, drug rehab, and usually always some type of probation.
Once a month, Judge would preside over what we called our “collateral day.” That was the day when all those on Judge’s probation who were accused of violating the conditions of that probation returned to court to have Judge determine if they had violated and what the consequences of that violation would be. The standard of proof required for such violations was minimal. In fact, most probationers were forbidden from being arrested. The mere fact that they had been arrested under suspicion of something was generally sufficient to revoke the probation and remand them to the DOC for incarceration.
By December things had quieted down and we were growing accustomed to several new routines on several fronts. We were flirting with tranquility as my son settled into sleep pattern. We were reveling in brief splurges like Buffalo wings from Bill Bateman’s Bistro for dinner Friday nights. We were enjoying new REM and U2 albums. We were meeting the characters of a new show called “Lost” on ABC. We were growing accustomed to the idea of four more years of W. We were generally (and surprisingly!) loving the simplicity of life as a family of three on a law clerk’s meager salary. We had decided to stay home for Christmas for the first time in our five year marriage and enjoy our neighbors and neighborhood. We were going to “take it easy” with each other for Christmas and not spend too much money.
The routines and personalities and smells of the courtroom became familiar too. I was getting accustomed to the Judge’s idiosyncrasies; I was becoming friendly with people in the file rooms and various departments of the court house and learning how to get things done; learning how to handle the omnipresent characters in the courtroom; learning how to navigate through the chaos of the court house while distancing myself from the emotion therein and in many cases, distancing myself from the lack of emotion therein. That was one of the toughest things to see, apathy. Family members rarely accompanied the defendants; rarely spoke on their behalf; rarely seemed to care; attorneys got worn down; judges got angry and annoyed.
The last week before Christmas was a hectic one for us, as it is for everyone. The Judge had been assigned to preside over an ongoing civil case alleging kids were getting autism from mercury in vaccines; more specifically, the mercury in a drug called Thimerasol. There was an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Dec. 21. Attorneys for Merck had moved to exclude the testimony of a doctor in Kansas who had found that mercury causes autism. The courtroom that afternoon was filled; but not with the usual panoply of the downtrodden. Corporate attorneys, attorneys for Merck and Pfizer and EliLilly and GlaxoSmithKline bedecked in Brooks Brothers and Burberry replaced the rumpled defense attorneys and tattooed defendants; the sweet hum of Blackberrys replaced the jarring jingle jangle of leg shackles and hand cuffs; the lexicon of criminality and incarceration was replaced by the oeuvre of the learned as they argued not about freedom, but of chemistry and money. Judge loved these folks. He loved being part of the arena; loved the order; loved the badinage with movers and shakers. It was a nice break from the monosyllabic grunts of the dispossessed. I liked it too.
The next day was the Judge’s December collateral day. Once things got rolling and the state’s attorney assigned to the Judge’s courtroom and the host of defense attorneys fell into that certain rhythm that said the day was going to run smoothly, I could sit back and observe; watch the courtroom empty as defendants were either escorted to lock-up or walked out with a stern admonition.
It was on that day, the 22nd, that I saw a mother and her son sitting in the courtroom. They looked tired. The son looked like he was about five years old and he was resting his head on her shoulder the way someone much younger does. They were dressed in the clothes that one wears when told to wear one’s best when one doesn’t have a huge selection of best clothes to wear and one doesn’t have to dress nicely that often. It was apparent they were waiting for one of the men in shackles and handcuffs seated in the front row and determining who was easy and he was one of only two white guys so seated. And once he spotted them he would turn his head and smile at them with some frequency – a contrite small smile that somehow simultaneously conveyed both reassurance and fear. I checked the file of the man I presumed to be the husband and father of the mother and son in the courtroom and saw a long list of CDS convictions. Those fucking Controlled Dangerous Substances; infiltrating a father, a mother and a son. Turning a family just like ours into one with a huge problem; this one on the cusp of being eviscerated. Physically, this man this convict was about ten feet away from me; but he was worlds away from my situation, my arena, my hopes, my worries. Despite all this, these three still exhibited some of the same indicia of family: the same looks, the same reliance, the same love.
Judge was rolling through these violations. But he took a break before he got to this man’s case. I brought the bowl of Jolly Ranchers that Theresa the courtroom clerk kept at our desk to the boy and asked if he wanted one. He took two. I asked what he wanted for Christmas and he said a remote control truck. The wife smiled. Judge re-emerged from chambers and I went back to the courtroom desk and wrote a post-it to Judge telling him the father should be given another chance. Judge let him go with extended outpatient treatment. And as the pitter pattering patois of his plea began, I watched his wife and son exhale with relief. And a tinge of resignation.
During lunch, I surreptitiously took the man’s file and went into chambers and sat at my desk. I went to Amazon and ordered the boy a remote control truck; with overnight shipping. It was $124, more than I would be spending on my wife that year. But it somehow seemed appropriate. There was an element of defiance in this and I liked that. A decade later I don’t remember the kid’s name or the dad’s name. Don’t know if he got the truck. Or if it included batteries. I realized later that I forgot all about the fucking batteries and that really irritated me. I hope he got the truck and was able to play with it, that they had batteries somewhere. I am not prepared to contemplate the likelihood that in this boy’s neighborhood, UPS packages are sometimes stolen from front porch steps, even at or especially at Christmas time. Or that they didn’t have enough money for batteries. I hope the parents just thought it was a Christmas miracle.
I don’t know if the dad ever violated his probation again; surely to some, drugs are more powerful than a son’s love, a remote control truck, a gavel. I hope he didn’t.
I do still wonder what it was about the boy that prompted me to so act; I am not instinctually nice. I would always rather buy a gift for me than a gift for someone else. Maybe it was the season; maybe it was having a child at home; maybe it was seeing these three in a sort of socioeconomic mirror; maybe it was the close proximity to that pharmaceutical hearing and thinking about what those attorneys’ kids would be getting for Christmas; maybe it was a gesture or look of longing the boy gave of which I am only subconsciously aware; maybe Grandma celestially nudged me; perhaps it was a circuitous apology for the indifference that sometimes seeped into the days.
I feel like I grew up that day. I learned that things are rarely black and white; that every case number was a story; and that I was capable of being more than I thought I was; that apathy is never OK. And even when kindness is tinged with defiance it is still good to be kind. And sometimes you just have to say “Fuck it.”
The boy in the courtroom is probably around 15 now. Hope he’s ok.
Photo: Catherine Read/Flickr
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