Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Flashback: May It Please the Court

[More for my children and grandchildren].

When we walked into the office we saw a tall, spindly, gaunt man in what I would say his early `60s with stringy black hair which had a sheen that reflected the ceiling light, hair combed forward in bangs to cover an obviously receding hairline, wearing a suit coat whose shoulders were snowy with dandruff, reading what looked like a law-book while trying to gulp air in a consumptive kind of way. Throughout the evening my hopes alternately escalated up and plunged downward. I thought I detected about him the whiff of alcohol.

Now they went down: No doubt about it, I’m going to go to the Workhouse.

We were introduced by the general counsel and he told us, “I think I have an idea which can help.” Hopes up. I may beat this thing.

He noticed me sniffing suspiciously. He pointed to his glossy hair.

“Brilliantine,” he said. “Gives off a smell.”

The general counsel asked: What is your idea?

“Before we get to that: the only thing I can promise is that I can get you on the docket first thing Thursday morning. That’s at 8. You were scheduled for 10:30. By then the Judge is so angry that he sends everyone to the Workhouse.”

Rapid plummet. Nope. No soap. I’m going.

I asked hopefully, Do you know the Judge?

“Yes. I have known him very well.”

Escalation. Maybe I won’t go to the Workhouse.

You’re a friend?

“Not at all. We were in the legislature together. In the House. Served on the same House committee: Judiciary. We were bitter enemies. He was DFL, I Republican. There was and is no party designation in the legislature but Democrats were caucused as liberals, Republicans as conservatives. But we were partisans: he a Democrat, me a Republican. I haven’t seen him much since.”

Crashing plummet. That’s it. I’m gone.

“But,” he said, “that leads to an interesting proposition, one which could be useful. I’ve just been tracking it here. We served on the committee that wrote amendments to the Minnesota Drivers License Act, a committee dominated by liberals. During that time we fought like tigers.”

It’s over.

“In particular there was one portion of it that involved a good deal of debate. I forgot the details until I reviewed them earlier. Republicans at that time, being conservatives, were all for strict sanctions for offenses; Democrats for spreading a sense of leeway. More compassionate they said which is a lot of nonsense.”

He coughed heatedly which set the general counsel also to coughing.

Yeah, this is really bad. I’m goin’.

“In this particular section here, testimony and statements covering 1935, we debated how stringent the state should be on failure to renew a driver’s license. Reading this tonight I came upon a colloquy which is truly revelatory. I said that being arrested with an expired drivers license should be tantamount to driving with none. He said, and I’ve got it here—now this is him when he was quite young—no, it should be equated as driving with an expired.”

Wait a minute…

“Then, by golly, I got to mention a hypothetical case: suppose a driver allows a license to expire for, say, years: shouldn’t that be cause for declaring that out of culpable negligence he is driving with no license whatsoever? And he says, no, it shouldn’t. Driving with no license, that is never having a license or driving with a suspended license or a revoked license should be equated with driving with no license—that much is clear. But and he says it right here, driving with an expired where there is no derogatory or culpable action beyond it’s being expired, should be regarded as what it is: an expired driver’s license. He had the votes and he won it hands down. That legislative language preceded its final passage. So we have legislative language articulated by this very person we will meet later this week.”

Huzza! I may beat this thing after all.

“Gentlemen, I think we’ve got this guy where we want him.”

No we don’t! Not with that attitude!

I don’t think we want to put it like that, said the general counsel softly. They huddled over the book.

By God, you do have him cornered, said the general counsel. Very interesting. It all depends on how you phrase it Thursday.

“Even if I phrase it badly, we could take it up to the Appellate and it would make intriguing case law.”

The bottom of depression. Probably on a fine point of law after I lose and am fired.

Let’s not even think about that, said the general counsel. Then the general counsel schooled him on approach. You want to be deferential. You want to bring it to his attention deftly, no “nyaa-nyaa, I found this. I found this and after all these years I confess you were right after all.”

He looked shocked. “I would not like to say that.”

Listen to me, said the general counsel. As a matter of fact, you became impressed as the years passed with the general rightness, the general compassion of the law that he insisted upon and here today in this Court you recognize the fact.

He looked downcast. “If you say so, Arnold.”

Which is what happened. At 8 p.m. after the “All rise!” my name was called and he stood up. The Judge squinted and said, “Well, I never!” Just like that! “Is that really you?” My lawyer said yes it was.

“Let the record show that many years ago we were in the legislature together. Fierce opponents but let the record also show that my distinguished adversary then left and built a fine law practice and is one of the leaders of the Minnesota Bar. But I always cherish those old days.”

Hopes sharply rising.

With that the evocation of old legislative history was made and the Judge studied the book of colloquy.

“Well,” he said. “That was when I was young and fairly tolerant. Counselor, sitting in this place I have come to be far more intolerant of carelessness as reflected by your client than I would as a young man…”

Nope. I’m going bye-bye.

“…but I acknowledge the diligent research that has gone into this preparation and that as a legislator who had a major part in drafting the bill my views are imperishably recorded as such. Therefore if the defendant will plead guilty, I will take this legislative history under serious advisement.”

I did and the fine was $1000 and costs. Exultant, I was never happier to be ordered to write a large check.

The newspaperman who was present inquired of the Court as to the legalistics—a newspaperman who was ready to do a first-rate job writing a story that would undoubtedly be headlined, GOP Scofflaw Berated as Civic Danger by Judge Who Sentences Him to Workhouse. But he was told by the clerk of the Court that the charge of driving without a license was wrong—told that by a liberal DFL Judge, and that the charge should have been “driving with an expired,” a relatively minor offense. Of course the length of time driving on an expired is inexcusable hence the stiff fine. But there were no legs to the story. Hence it ran near the corset ads in the back of the paper and extended to about three sentences.

Almost more relieved than I was the general counsel who sat in the back of the courtroom. After I paid my fine to the Clerk which took a long, bureaucratic time, I walked out the door through the anteroom where he was sitting thumbing through a magazine.

We have a date for a celebratory dinner tonight at the Heffelfinger’s, he said. I told her I won. She is delighted. All is forgiven because I won.

“Go without me and congratulations,” I said. “I’m emotionally drained.”

Drained, hell! You’ll make it, all right because I have orders to deliver you—and the honoree of the dinner will be me, not you who have caused this everlasting mess. You owe it to me to attend, thank them profusely and be properly effusive with praise and everlastingly thankful for my leadership in this. They and I expect you to crawl on your belly obsequiously before all of us, you little jerk. After all this, you’re not going to stand us up. Besides, I wouldn’t be surprised if they reimburse you for the fine.

That night, on the way over to their house, I asked the general counsel whom I never saw again by the way, what led him to choose this lawyer which was the happiest circumstance I could imagine. Did he know the facts about the legislation?

Not at all, he said. But I knew that if I got an expensive, well-known criminal defense attorney it would enrage the Judge and you’d be in the Workhouse this very evening. I had always heard they were friends. I almost collapsed when he said they had been enemies in the legislature! That’s when I saw my job pass in front of my eyes. But you realize that if I hadn’t changed his tone, he’d be showing the book to the judge and saying, “nyaa, nyaa, you’re taking my tack!” and you’d be…

…in the Workhouse this very evening.

The rest was history. My current driver’s license will expire on my birthday next year and long before that time I will be in line, waiting to take my written and then my driving test. To the Heffelfinger’s, the general counsel and the legal hired gun, all of whom are long dead, I can only say Deo Gratias.

No comments:

Post a Comment