May 2, 2014 § 40 Comments
The first time I had a case in Judge Ballbreaker’s courtroom, he scared me pretty good. The first case that day was Ninewhacker LLC v. Stinkboard. I’m not making that up.
The attorney for Mr. Stinkboard shuffled up to the lectern. His hair was stringy, greasy, and uncombed. He was wearing a tan corduroy jacket with an orange tie that hung off to the side of his neck; the tie was spotted with what looked like grease or coffee stains. His blue jeans were lashed to his waist with an ancient cordovan belt, and the collar on his wrinkled, light blue shirt was unbuttoned at the top.
The lawyer, who I’ll call Mr. Geetus, had three or four days’ worth of stubble and was wearing tennis shoes. “Mr. Geetus?” said Judge Ballbreaker.
“Yes, your Honor?”
“Before I call this case I’d like to say a few words about courtroom decorum. And I’ll be brief. When I get up in the morning I shower, wash my hair, shave, and put on a three-piece suit and a white dress shirt that has been starched and pressed. I’m wearing all of that under my judicial robe, Mr. Geetus, and it’s for a reason. The reason is that I represent the federal district court of the United States government, and it’s my belief that as a representative of our federal courts people will have greater faith in the work that I do when my appearance shows the lawyers, the debtors, the creditors, the plaintiffs, and the defendants in my courtroom that I respect them enough to look my very best. Do you understand me?”
“I think so.”
“I don’t think you do, Mr. Geetus, because you’ve come into my courtroom looking like a slightly refined version of a bum. You’ve not taken the time to make yourself even slightly presentable. In short, you’ve come into my courtroom dressed in such a way as to communicate that you don’t care what anyone thinks about how you look, and more importantly, that you don’t care what people think about your client. You’re an officer of the court, Mr. Geetus, and you can’t be bothered to comb your hair, shave your face, or press your shirt. So here’s what I’m going to do. Are you listening?”
“Yes, your Honor.” Mr. Geetus was now about two feet tall.
“I’m going to continue this matter until next Thursday. When you next come into my courtroom you will be professionally attired and you will attend to your personal hygiene such that all who look upon you will regard you as an honorable member of an honorable profession. Do you understand?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
“Good. And I’ll add something else. If you were a pro se litigant who had never been in a federal courtroom before, or if you were an indigent petitioner without the means to pay for legal counsel, I would accord you nothing but the highest regard and would treat you with the dignity I’d show to a lawyer wearing a two-thousand-dollar suit. But you’re not. You’re an experienced attorney and you are an officer of the court. So look the part.”
Mr. Geetus slunk out of the courtroom, and Judge Ballbreaker surveyed the rest of us. “I hope you all got the memo,” he said. “That this isn’t the place for beach attire.”
On Wednesday evening I received an email from the court’s electronic filing system. Due to the annual May Day protest at City Hall, anyone with a morning hearing was advised to allow for street closures, full parking, and traffic congestion.
“Great,” I thought, figuring that instead of leaving at 9:30 AM for an eleven o’clock hearing I’d have to leave at eight. Then I thought of other major downtown traffic events, where I’d been stuck in traffic that was so bad I couldn’t park within a couple of miles of the courthouse.
So I had an idea, a very multi-modal one. I’d drive downtown with my ‘cross bike in the car. If traffic looked like it was going to be too gnarly, I’d park in the ‘hood in South Central, pedal the two or three miles to the courthouse, lock my bike outside and still get to the hearing on time.
On Thursday morning I put on my lawyer outfit, loaded the bike, and tossed in my giant, bright yellow messenger bag, which I’d need to carry my briefcase, bike lock, and cable. Sure enough, the traffic was terrible, and by ten o’clock I was nowhere near downtown.
This was multi-modal transportation in action. If I’d felt any greener the dentist would have had to clean my teeth. I found a spot on Avalon, unloaded my bike, and headed downtown with plenty of time to spare.
I hadn’t gone more than a mile when my rear tire went soft, then flatted. I’d had the foresight to bring a tube and CO2, but hadn’t brought tire levers. The new tires fit more tightly on the rim than a noose after the trapdoor had opened, and within minutes I’d torn most of the skin off my palms trying to get the tire off.
The weather was blazingly hot for Los Angeles in May, and beneath my wool suit I began to sweat profusely. It forever to change the tire. The cuffs of my white dress shirt were covered in dirt and smudges of grease and I was sopping sweat, but I still had enough time, even if my case was the first one called, and my cases never get called first.
There’s never “plenty of time”
Once I’d inflated the tire, I raced to the courthouse. When I got there I pulled out my lock and discovered that I’d left the key to my Kryptonite back in the car. Now the oaths got really artistic and I went into full TT-mode, retracing the trip to the car, blowing stop lights and weaving through the dense downtown traffic.
I recovered the key and did another TT back to the courthouse. I now had five minutes to spare. The security people looked at me funny and checked my giant yellow messenger bag twice in the scanner before they let me through.
As luck would have it, I got to the courtroom at eleven o’clock sharp, gave the clerk my card, and found out that the first case on the calendar was mine. I limped up to the lectern, as wet as if I’d just gotten out of the shower.
Rivulets of sweat poured off my head. My collar was drenched. My suit was rumpled and my necktie askew. Worst of all, I hadn’t had time to switch from my bright orange-and-blue ‘cross shoes into my courtroom Oxfords, and the cleats clattered on the floor as I walked.
Judge Ballbreaker looked at my dirty shirt cuffs and completely disheveled suit. He remembered me from the previous hearing and he remembered the lecture he’d given us about appearance. “Mr. Davidson?” he said, looking sternly at my shoes and my big plastic yellow bag and my just-got-out-of-the-center-of-a-tornado appearance.
“I’m so sorry, your Honor. I got the court’s email about the May Day demonstration and rode down here on my bike, but I forgot the key to my lock and had a flat tire and didn’t have any tire levers and … “
“You rode to court on your bicycle?”
“Yes, your Honor.”
He peered over his glasses. “What kind of bicycle?”
“It’s, uh, a ‘cross bike, your Honor. A Giant.”
“I see,” he said. “I ride a Giant, too, a TCR. Integrated seat post. Those are good bikes.”
I was stunned. “Uh, yes, your Honor. They sure are.”
“Next time you come here on your bike, counsel, be sure to bring tire levers.”
“Uh, yes, your Honor.”
“However, you’re to be commended for cycling to court. I wish more people would do that.”
He went over the ruling in my case, explaining why he’d granted my motion. Then he finished with the most amazing comment of all. “Your appearance this morning is excused,” he said. “But don’t think that the next time you can show up in your kit.” Then he grinned.
“Yes, your Honor,” I said. Yes, indeed.
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