A friend pointed out to me the other day that this blog is entitled “The Flat Land Lawyer,” but I haven’t really written about the law or told any good legal war stories. I think on some subconscious level I’ve avoided those stories by design, mainly because I deal with the law during my day job. Trust me, tales from the practice of law in a small town are usually so far-fetched that no one really believes them, but believe it when I tell you that not even the most active imagination could dream up some of the things I have seen and heard in a courtroom or from clients. For the sake of staying somewhat true to the name of this blog, I will share one of my personal favorites.
When I first began practicing law in 1999, I was no different than a lot of small town lawyers. I would do anything if it meant I might get paid. Most of us go to law school thinking of Atticus Finch and being a part of great courtroom scenes like in the movies, but the reality is far more tame and downright dull. Courtrooms are places where preparation and diligence are usually the best weapons, and some of the most effective courtroom lawyers I’ve encountered were men and women who bordered on being “boring,” at least in the eyes of most non-lawyers. The best advocates are like the tortoise in The Tortoise and the Hare- slow and steady is a good thing. But you can still have the unexpected. I personally love the courtroom because I think it brings in the human element we need in the law, and I really do like people and observing human nature in action. Anyway, as a way to get in the courtroom when I was a baby lawyer, I signed up to serve as a Guardian Ad Litem in youth court. Guardian Ad Litem is a fancy legal term for a lawyer appointed by the judge to investigate the case and make a recommendation as to what the lawyer believes is in the child’s best interest. Youth Court is inherently a bit sad, as all of the children are victims of alleged abuse and neglect and some of their stories are downright horrifying. However, you also see people, usually parents, attempting to use the legal system as a way to gain an advantage over the other parent, sometimes for financial reasons. The reality of being a GAL in the Mississippi Delta is you can very rarely make contact with the child or the parents before the assigned court date because many of these people simply don’t have telephones. Or they try to screen their calls and damn sure don’t want to talk to an attorney. The result is a system where many times you meet your client (the child) about 5 minutes before court begins on the day of the hearing, and the amount of information you take in before the hearing makes you feel like you are drinking information at 8 billion miles per hour from the proverbial fire hose.
In our system, the County Prosecuting Attorney is charged with presenting the state’s evidence in Youth Court, and when I initially started practicing, one of my favorite lawyers in town was our County Prosecutor. He was the personification of a Southern lawyer with a tall frame, a slow drawl, and an easy courtroom manner. He would always saunter into the room with his navy blazer slung over his shoulder, and greet everyone as if he didn’t have anywhere else in the world he would rather be than in the Bolivar County Youth Court. The County Attorney job was only a part-time gig, so he had a regular practice as well to his prosecutor’s duties. Like me, he would get the case information shortly before the start of the court hearing, and many times, he was asking questions of witnesses just out of curiosity about the case since he had not had time to read the entire case file yet. He would amble up to the podium, lean on it with two elbows, and say to the witness, “Now tell me about ______.” He would always nod along with the witnesses, exude empathy, and as a result, he was very effective at his job. Nothing ruffled him, and in light of some of things the stuff in that court, that’s really saying something.
During these hearings, the prosecutor would question the witness first, then I, as the GAL, would get a chance to do the same before the Judge would ask a few final questions. We would always invoke “the Rule,” which is basically a rule where the witnesses must wait outside and not hear any other testimony that might influence them or cause them to change their testimony in any way. Once all of the witnesses had been heard, the Judge would bring everyone back in the courtroom and pronounce whether she believed the child to be abused and neglected under the law, and if abuse or neglect was indeed found to be the case, then she would move into the disposition phase of our hearing, or where the child would live while the Court kept jurisdiction over the case. This part was usually handled very informally with the County Attorney normally inquiring to a social worker whether she had a recommendation to the Court.
The story I’m going to share involves a sad case of two young boys who had been allegedly left at their mother’s home alone while she went out to the nightclub one Saturday night. These boys were probably 7 and 9 years old at the most, and a neighbor had called Child Protective Services when the kids were discovered with no supervision in the apartment. It was a fairly easy case to prove, as the mother did not dispute the allegations, and was willing to apologize to the Court and accept the recommended plan of parenting classes and weekly counseling sessions for six weeks or so. The Judge heard the testimony from a couple witnesses, talked to the children and mother, and then brought us all back to the courtroom to talk about our future plans.
Instead of asking for a social worker to discuss the children’s living arrangements, the Court asked the mother to take the witness stand again. Her two boys had come back in the courtroom and were sitting at the defense counsel’s table in big chairs that swallowed them when they sat with their backs against the back of the chair. Our prosecutor knew it was his duty to lead the questioning of the mother, so he walked over to the podium and moved the podium about six feet to the right of its normal position so the mother would still be able to keep an eye on her boys while she testified.
There weren’t that many questions to ask of the mother, but he still had to give it a try.
“Now, ma’am. You and your boys live alone in Sunset Village, correct?” he began.
“Yessir, we do” was the response.
Thwack! Just when the prosecutor started to move to his next question, something hit him in the back of the head and caused him to look around the room for the culprit. No one volunteered their guilt. So he began again.
“Ok, and you understand the Court is going to require you to do certain things for the-”
Thwack! The prosecutor stopped again when he felt something else hit him from behind. He was suddenly a substitute teacher in junior high school, and someone was covertly shooting spitballs at him. As nice a man as he was, he was still getting annoyed. He whirled around and only found me sitting at one counsel table and the two small boys sitting at the other table with their legs dangling over the front of the big chairs.
The Judge didn’t know what was happening and why this normally reserved attorney was getting both frustrated and confused.
“Counsel, are you ok?”
“I’m sorry, Your Honor. I am trying to get through this questioning but I swear something keeps hitting me in the back of the head,” the County Prosecutor explained.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! He took three shots to the side of the face this time, and all of us in the courtroom realized the artillery was being launched toward the prosecutor by the two small boys sitting six feet from their target like angels. The kids were hurling what appeared to be dark gum balls at the prosecutor, and then would look innocent when he looked in their direction. But the third shot tipped their hand because it allowed everyone to be able to see them throwing, and every person in the courtroom now knew the identity of our wanna-be assassins. Their mother saw their last two throws herself, and she immediately became extremely apologetic.
“I’m sorry, sir. Them are just doo-doo balls. When my boys get bored, they just reach in their butt and roll up balls to throw at each other. Usually it’s just at each other. Guess they just throwing the doo-doo balls at you now.”
The court reporter and I both burst into laughter. The Judge looked across at the mother on the witness stand like she had just spoken Pig Latin. Alas, our poor prosecutor turned the only shade of reddish-green I’ve ever seen in my life, and started feverishly rubbing the back of his head where he had taken the most shrapnel.
“Ummm. Your Honor, I have no more questions and can I be excused now? I need to be excused. I think I should go.”
At this point, I would not have been surprised if he had hurled himself through our second floor courtroom window to try to get to his shower faster. The Judge nodded and our courtroom was quickly minus one County Prosecuting Attorney. The Judge managed to question the mother without any further firefights.
At some point after this hearing, I believe I decided my normal caseload was too large to do much GAL work in Youth Court. Besides, it was probably best for me to get out of that court. My legal education did not prepare me for doo-doo ball wars.