F*ck You, Your Honor
When The Honorable Judge Solomon of the Algonquin County District Court sentenced me to write a book, I sat up in my chair at the Defendant’s table and listened. This ruling was an extraordinary sanction. An unusual punishment I didn’t deserve. I’d heard of fines, community service, probation, and jail time as punishment in court cases, never an order to write a book.
“Counselor,” Judge Solomon scowled, “this book project is due in exactly one year. There will be no excuses, and no continuances will be granted. Not just any book. A book about the dignity and integrity of the legal system. At least sixty-five thousand words. Any questions?”
Could he do that?
That was my first question. I didn’t ask it then. In the crowded courtroom—hot and stuffy, silent and small. I had learned to be deferential in front of a judge. A judge is a man of great power and insight. If I didn’t follow the court’s order, I could be disbarred. It was a privilege to practice law, and I didn’t want to lose that privilege. I had bills and alimony to pay. I was an attorney, after all; I had no marketable skills.
Call the lieutenant governor, the deputy mayor! This was some kind of mistake!
I had been a lawyer for fifteen years. I had never been in trouble. I was the one who followed the rules, always returned phone calls, scoured my court filings for typos, never missed deadlines. I filed my pleadings at least a day early. I had been on television, and I had won a big case against Superman.
Maybe I hadn’t heard the judge correctly. It was late July, the air conditioning in the courtroom didn’t quite work, and the bailiff had brought in a rattling old fan. At the very least, I waited for an explanation of his reasoning. I waited for the word “but.”
But the judge did not say the word.
I looked up at him perched in front of the courtroom behind the wooden paneling in his flowing black robe, next to the empty seats in the jury box and the witness stand, the fan noisily limping along. The state flag and seal hung behind the bench. I saw the glaring red numbers of the digital clock, the big calendar on the wall of the courtroom.
I knew very little about this judge, except that he had been on the bench for a long time. Although he was a man of extraordinary authority, there was nothing striking about him. He had bad teeth; you would think with such a nice salary he could have them repaired.
If we could settle the dispute the old way, with a boxing match or a duel, for example, I would clearly have won.
I noticed the bailiff, the court reporter, and the sheriff. The crowd of disgruntled homeowners appearing in court for the first time, trying to keep their homes out of foreclosure.
“Thank you, your Honor,” I said. I had no idea why I was thanking him. Out of habit, I suppose. A police officer pulls you over and gives you a speeding ticket, you thank him. A judge orders you to write a book, you thank him, while cursing at his decision under your breath.
What was this judge—some kind of bibliophile? I thought about my past interactions with Judge Solomon and what I possibly could have done to deserve this. I had seen him at bar functions, in the elevator at the courthouse, and in line at the cafeteria. I had entered a few plea bargains in front of him. Argued a few short motions. I had done nothing to set him off.
At the very least, I decided to vote not to retain the judge in the next election.
A judge is supposed to be fair. Carefully weigh the evidence of each case, the credibility of the witnesses. Apply the applicable law to the facts based on precedent. Craft a reasoned ruling—in the interests of justice. Someone has to make decisions, I understand that. Most judges say they know they have done a good job if neither party is happy with the result. A judge is supposed to be wise. Not issue this crackpot ruling about writing a book.
And who knows what he told his fellow judges about me! Judges hung out together, had morning meetings, attended judicial conferences. Judges went bowling, had barbeques, played badminton together.
Once you were discredited in the eyes of the judges, you were, well, ruined as a trial lawyer. It was so humiliating, I couldn’t help but cringe. I thought about what I would say to him if I ever had the opportunity. I needed to get the order set aside. And to find some way to get my revenge.
I used to run television ads for my law practice. The Law Firm of Darwyn ‘Wyn’ VanWye. The ads showed a photo of me with a stupid grin and a phone number. Below me in big letters: ‘Call Wyn to Win.’ The TV producers made more money off me than I ever did off those ads.
I had looked good in the ads, decked out in my finest pinstriped suit. What Amalia, my ex-wife, who selected it, called my ‘killer suit.’ Although Amalia knew little about the practice and procedures of law, she was almost always right about the result of any case I discussed with her.
My practice focused on civil litigation and criminal law. Real estate disputes and transactions. Occasional divorces. A business that thrived on the misery of others. I still maintained my real estate broker’s license with my company, Wyn Realty. I was that rarity: a real estate attorney who knew something about real estate; a real estate broker who knew something about real estate law.
A Wyn-Wyn, as it were.
My case was adjourned, and the clerk called the next case. In the hallway, I passed people rushing for court from the elevator. On the first floor, I lingered inside the courthouse by the entrance.
I saw the police officers who ran security with their search tables and x-ray machines, frisking people in suits with a scanner shaped like a wand, heard their voices as they demanded keys and belts and watches. Security was clogged down with lawyers in the line with their big briefcases filled with files and charts and exhibits, the litigants and their witnesses and the lost and confused jurors, with their conspicuous white ‘juror’ name tags.
When you win a case you gloat, you celebrate, you just do, going over in your head what you did right and why the judge believed you; when you lose a case, you stumble home alone or to a bar in disbelief.
The details of the order were beginning to set in. The judge was out to get me, and I was now a sanctioned attorney. Usually when I went to court I felt significant, I stood out. Lost witnesses would ask me directions, and I would direct them to the clerk’s office.
At the courthouse, a suit was like a badge or a uniform. The suit was a symbol of success, of being a lawyer, a man of influence. As a matter of pride, I took great care of my suit, laying it out in the back of my car before every court appearance so it wouldn’t get wrinkled. The litigants and jurors usually dressed like they were going to the grocery store. And you could tell what kind of lawyer a person was by the jacket he wore. Private attorneys wore expensive suits; the poorly-paid government lawyers, like public defenders and DAs, wore blazers. Now Judge Solomon had humiliated me with his order; I didn’t know how I would ever take another case.
I missed the camaraderie of griping with my fellow attorneys at my old law office. A kind or consoling word from a colleague about the unfairness of Judge Solomon’s order. My old office was a real office with land lines, secretaries, paralegals, and a reception area. Even potted plants. I missed the purr of the phones ringing, the clatter of keyboards.
Another thing I missed: books.
Now all I needed to conduct my law practice was my laptop and a smart phone. I met clients at the Starbucks or a sports bar called The Overtime. Occasionally, I even made house calls.
I thought about the order in hopes I could spin it to myself. Like I did for my clients. You take an innocent client to trial, he gets convicted of a crime, and he gets two years probation instead of five years in prison; as a lawyer, you spin it, it’s a victory. Another client wants full custody of his child. After a hearing he gets visitation every other weekend; at least he got some parenting time. There was no spin on this one.
I pulled out my phone and googled ‘Judge Solomon.’ The youngest child of a single mom… worked his way through law school on minimum wage jobs and scholarships… renowned for his empathy… even created a shelter for lost pets… considered knowledgeable, almost ‘encyclopedic.’
He had a solid reputation, deftly handling civil and criminal cases as well as certain matters for the Disciplinary Committee. I hoped at least that his wife had left him, and he was miserable.
In his years on the bench, his decisions had never once been overturned. His name was frequently passed around for appointment to the Supreme Court. Worse, he was happily married. For sixteen years.
Judge Solomon had even written an article in a well-respected, influential, and prestigious legal journal about how he had sacrificed a lucrative private law practice to become a distinguished jurist, to leave what he called ‘his legacy.’
After extensive legal research through Wikipedia, I concluded, much to my astonishment, that he could sentence me to write a book. There was precedent in the state and federal court. Judges had made nutty rulings before, and he had followed them.
There were statutes and rules and there was common law—case law interpreting statutes and rules. Some statutes were interpreted narrowly; others were interpreted liberally.
In other words, a judge could pretty much interpret the law any way he wanted.
I checked my phone and noticed that my afternoon appointment had cancelled. The appointment was with a woman who had problems with her landlord. I had tried to help her on the phone, and I assumed by her cancellation she had worked it out. In my normal routine, prospective clients called me all day long, some seeking consultations, some shopping my rates, others wanting free legal advice.
Although my conversations with strangers were protected under the attorney-client privilege, I was amazed that people would leave detailed, confidential, personal messages for me before they retained me. As if based on just contacting me, I was their marriage counselor, psychiatrist, and priest. Lawyer and life-coach. What if it was a wrong number? Or I was opposing counsel? Or whether their version of the facts was so one-sided so as to make defending their case impossible?
Still musing over the judge’s order, I drove over to the house in a subdivision called Three Lakes on the south side of town. A small brick wall and a friendly sign for the neighborhood greeted you as you drove in.
It was a good excuse to drop in on Amalia.
The house was a three bedroom. Ready for children. Close to the park. In a family-oriented neighborhood, marked by basketball hoops, Girl Scout troops, and tricycles. I was still paying the mortgage on this house. The house with green trim. The house we bought when we were first married. Now, Amalia’s house.
In my head I heard Amalia nagging me about the judge’s order. When we talked about my cases, she could figure out who was lying, and I could never pull anything over on her. Usually after spending a few days on a brief or a motion, or a week preparing for a trial, she would ask me about my cases. She would listen to my facts, I would recite the law, and she would explain what to tell the judge to win the case. Sometimes at breakfast. Sometimes as she packed me a lunch on my way to court.
As I parked in front of the house, I noticed how neatly she had kept the lawn and how good the house looked, giving the impression she was unaffected by the divorce. Her life went on fine, except without me in it. The house had curb appeal—two big bay windows in the front with planters in them. By comparison, much nicer than the home I was squatting in on Hickory Lane. A run-down HUD house. Close to Amalia, but not too close.
First thing I did, I knocked on the door. Nothing worse than walking in on my ex, and I assure you I had the purest intentions. I still had a key left over from the divorce. I knocked again, put my key in the lock, and walked into her home. Shouted out “Hello” like it was a real estate showing.
This was illegal. Arguably.
I only got away with it because (I just remembered) Amalia was at work as a closer for Algonquin Title. A real job. With a salary. Something she adamantly refused to try when we were married.
The house looked the same as when we were married. Each room was painted in a different, bright color, as always. One secondary bedroom pink and the other blue. Boy or girl, she would have been happy either way. When we bought the house, I imagined playing with our children on the swing in the park by the lake. It never happened.
I even wrote down jokes to tell my child: “Who invented the mobile phone?”
I could see my naturally brilliant future little tyke contemplating an answer: “Alexander Graham Cell.”