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Because of the sad fact that my secretary had forged fifty of my office checks and cashed them one summer, I found myself subpoenaed as a witness in a shabby courtroom in Philadelphia's City Hall. It was jarring to find out what goes on every day in a little room just thirty steps inside a side door that thousands of people walk past every day without noticing. Apparently, it is standard practice for the Judge to be forty-five minutes late, but I didn't know that and was breathless from hurrying as the great booming tower clock struck nine.
Just as true in hospitals or empty theaters, the minor characters and stagehands have grown accustomed to the scene and rattle around the courtroom as though at a picnic, until some person of authority appears to transform them into the spear carriers they know they are. The fat bailiffs shout and guffaw with the grubby court stenographer. The public waiting area is filled with a lounging mixture of culprits, victims, detectives, witnesses. To pass the time, one speculates who the other spectators might be, who is a criminal, who is a witness. Having had to appear at five earlier "preliminary" hearings, in this case, I have become rather expert in distinguishing the Irish lady detectives from the ladies who seem to be in trouble, but sometimes the male plainclothes detectives fool me. "All stand!" is the command as our funny little judge makes his dramatic entrance in a wrinkled gown. Crew cut, little mustache, fat.
It doesn't take him long to make his point that he is a swaggering bully who doesn't like the pimply kids who are assistant district attorneys, but curiously gets on quite chummily with the elderly man in Ivy League horn-rims who is the Public Defender. Since his demeanor seems more appropriate to Praetoria than Philadelphia, I surmise the fraternity of his own age group is more compelling than his likely disgust for bleeding-heart liberals, but no, maybe not. The first culprit was a swaggering young black man in manacles, pleading guilty to three thefts, and looking very insolent about it. Two months in jail, followed by two months of probation, the three sentences to run concurrently, time awaiting trial to count against the sentence. Since the scoundrel had already spent four months in jail waiting for this trial which lasted five minutes, he was free. Unfortunately, the arithmetic was too much for him, and so he was quite unprepared to understand he was free. ree, to go, now. When comprehension finally penetrated, the teeth were very white and the smile very broad, doing a little jig still in handcuffs behind his back, out the into the waiting area, pursued by a very disgusted-looking guard. The guard did have to unlock him after all, so he expressed his unspoken feelings by seizing the handcuffs and pulling backward, a process that nearly wrenched the shoulders out of their sockets. Acting out his role, the guard maintained a solemn face as he unlocked the cuffs in a business-like manner.
This little scene provoked a conversation between two burly gentlemen sitting behind e, who appeared to be ex-policemen working as private detectives. "I left the force, couldn't take it anymore. Didn't you hear about my trouble? I grabbed a guy robbing a store, this guy was a real bum, had a record of violent offense a yard long, and I subdued him. I might have known I was in trouble when this ACLU lawyer gives me the finger. The next week, the Chief calls me in and suspends me, says they had pictures of these little scratches on the guy's head and burn marks on his wrists from the cuffs. I got my payback eventually, but I spent six months on suspension and went through Hell, So I quit. I give the Chief credit, though. He says to me 'If you ever catch a perpetrator in the act, don't you ever rough him up Blow Him Away! And if you wound him, you damn well better kill him, cause look what happens if you don't"
The eavesdropping was so interesting I missed what was going on in the court, but the Public Defender was somehow telling how the next perpetrator had been given five months in jail by a Montgomery County judge who had been his law school classmate and who was a very tough man. That's the way he is, and that's the way Montgomery County is, five months in jail is their idea of leniency. He used to be in the district attorney's office. "Why yes," announced the Judge, "That's why he is so lenient. C'est la Guerre".
The other hundred people in the courtroom sat silently while these two cronies had their public chat, but then things seemed for a moment to take a sudden turn. A new assistant DA got up to bat, this time aloud and the brassy dame who was hard to pigeon-hole, but I finally decided she was second generation Polish. The perpetrator this time was a Russian-speaker woman who was accused of being a welfare cheat or at least was living in an apartment whose rent was more than her welfare check. The problem was the statue of time limitations had maybe run out since she got off the welfare rolls four years ago. The Commonwealth argued that since she concealed her true address until recently, the Commonwealth had no chance to detect her fraud until they received an anonymous tip. "If your honor should rule that the statute of limitations had expired, your honor would be sending her a clear message, and sending all welfare cheaters a clear message that they are to be encouraged to conceal their true whereabouts and be rewarded for their crimes against the taxpayers."
Well, what did the Public Defender have to say about this? "Your honor, our position is that four years is four years." At that remark, delivered in a low even voice, without a sign of facial expression, the Judge burst into a tirade. "Now see here, Counsellor. If you continue to raise your voice at me in my own court ('But I didn't raise my voice, your honor') and if you continue to smirk at me in a condescending manner (I'm not being condescending at all, your honor') and if you try to tell me how I am to interpret the law, I am going to find it increasingly easy to decide this case. In twenty years as a Judge, I've only been reversed on appeal once, and that was subsequently re-reversed by the Supreme Court. I'm beginning to find it very easy to decide this case, yes I am." The public defender could not possibly have looked more bewildered.
And then it became clear what was up. He swung to the brassy lady lawyer and said, " As for you, Miss Assistant District Attorney, don't you ever come into my court and tell me what's going to happen to me if I interpret the law in the proper way. Don't you ever, ever threaten me that I'm forced to interpret the law your way to avoid sending some kind of message to people. You might get away with that with some other people we know, but you won't get away with that with me." As he was supposed to do, the court stenographer scurried to take down both sides of this even-handed scolding of the two disorderly attorneys. Hmm.
and my own forgery case? Well, there has to be at least one more hearing because the city detective who had the evidence, the forged checks, forgot to show up for court. The judge asked me most of the questions, racing to get on to other business. I've heard of "leading", mostly stating what he imagined the situation must have been, and asking me. "Is that substantially right?" Well, yes, substantially. When I had filled in the blanks in his mental questionnaire, I was dismissed.
"You can go back to your office, Doctor, or wherever you are going. It's raining so the golf course will be too wet for you to play."
Thank you, your honor.
Originally published: Monday, October 15, 2018; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019