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A Typical Day

March 19, 2011

      I’m late for work today.  For some reason I had a little difficulty generating any enthusiasm for getting up.  As I’m driving, I see the brake lights of the car in front of me.  An old red beater is veering back and forth across the two lanes of traffic, going exactly the speed limit and cutting off anyone that tries to pass him.
      I realize that I’ve seen the car parked at the court and the driver is Judge McCoy.  Being a judge must be a twenty-four hour job.  If I’d gotten to work on time, this wouldn’t be a problem.  Although I’m late for work, the judge is early.
      Every judge I’ve known complains about the long hours and the burden of their responsibilities, yet almost every one of them arrives about five minutes before court begins, which is usually nine in the morning, they leave for lunch well before noon, and return around half past one and then head for home at four o’clock.  Mind you, this is only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  If the judge doesn’t have a trial, good luck finding one on Monday or Friday.  Now, now not all judges are like that.  If you’re a judge reading this, I’m sure you’re the exception to the rule.
      I know one judge that gets so enthralled with the latest trial of the century on Court TV, that once a month he’s at least an hour late for his hearings.  No one ever says anything; it’s not good for your client.  There’s a peculiar feeling to a room where a handful of lawyers and their clients pretend that they haven’t been waiting impatiently.
      Sound like a crushing workload?  If they think the job is so bad, then quit.  Most of the judges I’ve known to retire only did before someone exposed them.  The rest either die in office or lose an election.
      As I follow the judge we pass the local Planned Parenthood.  Around the clinic is the usually parade of antiabortion protestors, holding signs with pictures of maimed fetuses, blown up to horrific size.  They’re only there as weather permits.  You only need to fight God’s fight when weather permits. 
     I don’t care about them protesting, if they want to waste their time and feel righteous about it, go ahead.  But I find the pictures objectionable, not for me, I’m a big boy, I see worse things on T.V., but because this is a public and well-traveled thoroughfare and I don’t think children, especially young ones should be exposed to that because they can’t understand it.
     For any yahoo out there that thinks that’s the point: to shock and terrify little children or to force people to do something to protect their children from that reality, that’s a bully’s argument.  Everyone knows that bullies are cowards.  I wonder if they’d like it if a bunch of pornography protestors marched outside the local gas station or video store that has an adult section, carrying signs with graphic depictions of women being three-wayed or gang raped because that’s what some porn contains.
     Free speech only goes so far, but the mayor and city attorney are too yellow to crackdown on the protestors.  Their job is to protect the city and its citizens, but they’re too afraid of a fight, too concerned with the costs, or ultimately the possibility of losing their jobs or an election.  There’s something weak about almost every politician, regardless of affiliation.  I’m not sure if it’s the system that makes them worthless, or if it merely draws from the shallow end of humanity.
    Some of the protestors are kids that aren’t in school because their parents are “home schooling them.”  Must be a civics lesson.
    Now certainly there are parents out there teaching their children better than the ailing public system, probably a good portion of them, but I’ve seen parents signing their kids up to be home schooled and they must have the child fill out the form because the parent has trouble spelling their own name.
    When we reach the courthouse, the judge turns into the parking lot reserved for the judiciary.  I can see that someone had already parked in his spot.  The judge parks right behind them and blocks them in.  I suspect that’s one of the reasons the judge drives an old car to work. 
    I park in the dirt overflow parking lot two blocks away and walk along the uneven sidewalk.   Ten years ago the ancient trees that lined the street were cut down because of Dutch Elm disease.  All that remains is the cement upheaval caused by their roots and grassed over depressions in the soil where the stumps were pulled out.  No one bothers to plant trees to line the streets anymore, at least not in this part of town.
     The courthouse can best be described as a fairy tale castle complete with four turrets built out of yellow bricks that look like gold from a distance.  You can almost imagine Cinderella pulling up in her pumpkin carriage.
     It isn’t a place of fairy tale endings, but the opposite.  If you had a karmic map of the world, then it would be a black spot.  Except for fast food weddings, people only go to court when something has gone so wrong that it can’t be fixed without a judge.
     Over each doorway is the word “Courthouse” except it has Vs in place of the Us.  Either drunk Transylvanian is a more noble looking language or the introduction of the letter U to the alphabet didn’t occur until recently.   Underneath that is an inscription in Latin: Cum homine de cane debeo congredi.  Which I am told means ‘Each man comes from many’ which is just nebulous enough to possibly be true.  However, I was one of those high school kids that thought it would be good to take Latin in high school because I wanted to be a scientist before I choose the more exciting and lucrative career of a public defender, and it looks to me like it actually says: ‘I need to see a man about a dog.”
     On the north side of the building is an obscene orange and black annex built in the sixties that looks like nothing so much as a bloated lamprey that’s attached itself to the older building. Beyond that it the concrete edifice of the public safety building which holds most of the misdemeanor courts, the police department and the county attorney’s office.
     A woman who looks about fifty, but is probably only in her thirties, walks past me carrying a lit cigarette in a hand covered in so many rings and bracelets that I can’t see any skin.  She looks pregnant and the only reason I would guess that it’s a child, and not a beer gut, is the fact that she’s at the courthouse every month or so getting a restraining order and her stomach has been growing recently.  By the looks of the black eye, I’d guess that she got another one.  She never shows up for the hearing to make the temporary order permanent.
     I suspect the civil judge is frustrated with issuing temporary orders, but is afraid to refuse to issue one for fear of the uproar if the woman got herself killed and the judge had refused to issue a restraining order.  That’s the kind of thing that show’s up in women’s magazines about the bias and failures in the legal system.
     Some people find seeing familiar and constant faces reassuring. 
     The glass in the courthouse door tilts my reflection about thirty degrees.  That seems appropriate.  Just ahead of me a gentleman in his late sixties, with hair dyed coppery red to cover the gray is smoking a cigarette.  His fingernails are the thick yellow of a heavy smoker, his skin in more gravelly than wrinkled.  He passes the ashtray and pauses a moment to stub his cigarette out against the wall of the building leaving a black mark on the wall before dropping the remains on the ground.  People think youths are disrespectful.
     The public defender’s office is a piecemeal of disconnected offices on the first floor of the courthouse and in the annex.   One of the reasons for this is to create so-called ‘Chinese walls’ so that several public defenders can represent people who may have opposing interests. 
      I’ve never figured out why they’re called Chinese walls, since the walls are imaginary ones made out of paper and the Great Wall is certainly not paper.  I always thought it was the Japanese that traditionally had paper walls, but then what do I know?  The only foreign country I’ve been to is Canada, and New Orleans is more foreign than most of it.  While almost all the history I was taught in school was directly connected to either what led to the creation of this great nation, or what this great nation has done.
       What little I learned about Japan and China fell into two categories:  The rainbow or the brotherhood.  The rainbow is a gloss over of our “cultural” differences in an attempt to show the importance of divergent perspectives.  The Brotherhood is an attempt to show how we’re really all alike.
       Makes me wonder if inaccurate perceptions based on ignorance are really any different from knowing bigotry.  Both are willful.  One is born of sloth, the other hate.  Each is a deadly sin.  Guess that’s my answer.
       I walk through the doors to the courthouse and into deputy county attorney Harlon Wendt.  I can tell he’s waiting for some schmuck to walk through the doors and I happen to be the millionth customer.  That’s what I get for being late.
        Harlon smiles.  “Adam, just the man I’m looking for.” Yeah, because I have a pulse.  He hands me a sheaf of paper – civil commitment papers.  I grunt so I don’t curse.  My day just veered in a different direction.
        Harlon moves over to the elevator that is just inside the doors and pushes the button. “The judge is waiting.”
        Normally, I’d have taken the stairs, but the judge would see this as a waste of her time.  I remember hearing once that one of the Rockefellers stopped a board meeting to play with his children.   It seems like such a wonderful thing for a father to do, but I always wondered if Rockefeller would have stopped the meeting for one of the other board member’s children.  Somehow, I doubt it.  It doesn’t take much to go from family and children are important to my family and children are important and yours aren’t.
        Judges are the same way.  They care nothing for squandering the lives of other people, but making them late is at best disrespectful and more likely to result in contempt.
        So I ride the elevator up with Harlon.  He’s a big, likable guy, although the County Attorney knows that and often puts him up to being nasty, because Harlon can get away with things that the County Attorney couldn’t.
        His name is so close to Harvey Dent, Batman’s friend and the eventual nemesis Two-face, that sometimes I call him big bad Har, a reference to the evil half of Harvey’s personality.  Harlon doesn’t seem to get the reference and I’ve never enlightened him.
        I sighed and glance through the documents he handed me.  Noted that my new client apparently was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and found clutching her three-year-old daughter protectively as she walked down a country lane in the middle of a rainstorm. Too afraid to enter her home because of what was inside, she was trying to protect her daughter.
        We step off the elevator.  Linda, the court clerk sees me and asks in a voice that’s loud, yet oddly hushed, “Can I tell the judge, you’re ready?”
       “Could I have a moment to speak with my client?”
       She nods, but it’s the nervous agreement of an attendant.  There’s some strange law of the universe that requires court clerks to appear about fifty with a look of perpetual constipation.  They all look dissatisfied even when they’re smiling.
        My client is huddled behind what is traditionally the counsel table assigned to the defense.  Every now and then my boss will sit at the table the prosecutor prefers and watch him have a conniption.
       Behind her are two sheriff deputies that escorted her from the mental wing of the hospital.  In the public area of the courtroom is her family.  It’s easy to pick them out, the older coupler are the parents looking forlorn.  Her husband is a picture of anguished guilt. Parents always look that way and a spouse always looks guilty.
       Out in the atrium, I hear the laughter of a small girl, probably the daughter of my client.
       It’s a funny sound to hear in a courthouse.  Not because children are so unusual here, because people bring them all the time, usually as shields, but because of what a courthouse is – the elephant graveyard for all human relationships. 
       I sit next to my client and I say softly “My name is Adam, I’ve been appointed to represent you.  The State is asking the court to place you in the mental hospital for ninety days.  Do you understand?”  The gray light from the window behind her falls like a shroud upon her narrow body.
       She stares at me with bright intensity, like there is nothing else in the universe.  Her face is pulled tight from a lack of food.  After a long moment, she nods.  Her voice is a desperate whisper, “I’m scared and sad.  Being paranoid and depressed, just means you’re scared and sad.”
       What’s there to say to a statement like that?  I nod slightly, which is what I usually do in these circumstances, trying to convey empathy and understanding, without pity. 
       Judge Zipporah Anderson is done waiting for me to finish.  Everyone stands as she brings her considerable bulk into the courtroom.  Judge Anderson’s appearance is hard to describe if you want to be flattering.  The nicest thing I can think to say is that the black robe conceals her waddle and transforms it into something dignified.  Picture Jabba the Hutt with a thatch of dirty, graying blond hair.  The first thing you notice, after her considerable bulk, is the sever downturn of her mouth – just like Jabba’s. The only thing missing is the booming laugh.  I’ve never heard her laugh.
      “Please be seated.”  Is it a sign of respect if you can be jailed for not rising?
      “Mr. Wendt?”
      “Your honor, we’re here on a civil commitment proceeding.  I would ask the court advise the respondent of her rights and, after determining that there is probable cause, set this matter for commitment hearing.”
      The judge turns her attention to my client and then proceeds to read her rights in a commitment hearing.  Most people don’t really hear what their rights are in a criminal setting and it’s worse with the mentally ill.  The judge reviews the commitment papers and after a moment says, “I find there’s probable cause to believe the respondent is mentally ill and a danger to herself or others.  Therefore I am going to set this for a full hearing in two days and order that she be held at the hospital until the time of the hearing.  I further order that she cooperate with the doctor and complete all examinations that he requests.  Anything further?”
      I stand up, “Judge, she has a right to an independent evaluation, I would like to request that the State pay for that evaluation.”
      “So ordered.”
      “I’d also like additional time to get an evaluation . . .”
      “Mr. Purcell, the law is quite specific, the hearing must be held within two days.  You have that time to find a doctor to do your evaluation.  If you can’t find a doctor, that’s your problem.” She knows damn well I won’t be able to find a doctor in that amount of time.  None of them will drop their schedule to do an evaluation.  Besides, it isn’t the statute, but the costs, that really drive the time limit.  Every day my client is in the hospital, the county gets billed at an exorbitant rate.
      “Anything else?”
      “If I can have just a moment,” I turn before the judge says anything and say to my client, “Do you want one person or six to decide whether to send you to the mental hospital?”
      “Six.”  It’s all in how you word the question.  If you ask jury or judge, you might get any answer depending on how cognizant they are of their situation.  They almost always say six when you put the question that way.  They never bring it up, if you don’t ask them.  Like I said, most people don’t listen or really understand what their rights are.
      I look up, “My client would like a jury trial.”  The judge frowns.  She isn’t happy with me and knows I’m being deliberately difficult, but there’s nothing she can do about it.  You have to be passive aggressive to be a public defender.  There are many ways to communicate to someone that you disagree with them about something.  When there’s a disparity of power, you have to go sideways.  The direct route either costs you or your client.
      “The jury trial will commence at eight-thirty in two days.  Anything else?”  We all stand as she leaves the bench.  I speak with my client for five minutes before they take her away.
       It also helps to be a masochist to be a public defender.  I’ll spend the rest of the day scrambling for a doctor, that I won’t be able to get, simply so I will have a record that I tried and failed and a jury trial will consume my time just as it will the judge’s and Harlon’s
       If you want to know what I mean, let me tell you a little story.  When I was young my brother and I were watching television and my father and I got into an argument about what we were going to watch on television.  I don’t remember what we were watching, or what my dad wanted to watch.  My brother gave in to him, but I’d been there first and I argued with him.  He changed the channel and when he did, I got up to change it back.
       He grabbed me to stop me and I struggled to turn the T.V. back.  I think I may have even changed the channel before he put me into a wrestling hold that I couldn’t escape from.
       “Give?”  He asked me.  I was trapped.  There was no way I was going to get out.  Helpless.
       “No.”  I answered.  His legs were around my abdomen.  He squeezed and I felt my breath pushed out of my lungs. 
        He eased the pressure and said, “Give?”
       “No.”  My voice wasn’t as loud this time.
       He squeezed again.  I couldn’t breathe.  He released after a moment.  “Give?”
       “No.”  My voice sounded hoarse.  My face felt hot, my throat was starting to hurt.
       He squeezed again, longer this time before releasing.  “Give?”
       “No.”  I had to struggle to get the word out, but I wasn’t going to give in.  It was a contest of wills.  I may suffer but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of beating me.
       He squeezed again, forcing me to exhale in a hiss.  I heard my heart beat and it was loud.  I struggled to breathe, but couldn’t.  The muscles in my throat worked fruitlessly trying to get air into my lungs.  My vision became a swirl of colors.  “Give?”
       “No.”  It came out as a squeak because there was no breath behind it.
       He kept squeezing.  There was nothing I could do to stop it.  My head throbbed.  My eyes felt like they were going to burst from their sockets.
       I passed out for a moment. 
       Then I was released, gasping for air, and my father fled.
       I went back to watching my program.  I saw my brother looking at me and he was afraid – afraid of me. 
       He knew I would endure anything to win.
       If you want to win as a public defender, you have to be willing to suffer.  Pain is my friend.  It’s with me always.
       The courtroom empties quickly.  I head down the stairs.  I could take the elevator, but I need the exercise.  You never know when a client, a victim or their family, might decide to take a chunk out of you.
       The door to my office is across from the Licensing Department.  There’s always a line there.  Beside the door is a Crime stoppers display showing wanted posters.  Someone has a perverse sense of humor.
       A woman is looking at the pictures of the fugitives while holding a toddler.  The child points to one of the pictures and proclaims in an excited lisp of recognition “Daddy.”
       I walk past them and through the door.  Agnes is sitting behind her desk.  Who names their child Agnes?  It couldn’t have been popular fifty years ago.  It sounds like a name for an old lady.  Granted, half the population will, if they’re lucky, become old ladies, but who wants a name they have to spend most of their life to grow into?
      Agnes smiles at me from behind her desk, “How’s you’re morning?”
      I smile back.  I can’t help it.  I admit it – I like her.  “My cup runneth over.”
     She laughs as if it’s actually funny.  Agnes is invariably cheerful, which I find to be against all reason since she takes an almost endless amount of abuse all day from people either on the phone or as the come through the door. I do not want to imply that every client that comes through the door is abusive, or angry, or even unpleasant.  Some are extremely polite, others are kind, but there are always some that are not.  Every day.  Without fail.
     There are two types of people who work secretarial (I hate the phrase support staff, it makes me think of athletic support) for the County, the kid just out of high school, often pregnant, or the newly divorced stay-at-home mom now in her middle years facing entering the work force.  Agnes is one of the latter.
      Agnes is assigned to assist me and two other attorneys with everything from filing and preparing simple motions, to being a buffer between our clients and us. 
      I am suspicious that either Mother Theresa faked her death or that Agnes believes she will get time off for good behavior in the next life.  The only downside to her is that she has trouble dealing with more than one thing at a time, which is a serious problem when you deal with chaos.
      I head into my office to spend the day looking for a doctor that I won’t be able to find.  With a pile of work on my desk I won’t be able to get to.
      Just another typical day.

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