Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Musings, 21 January 2012

Good morning,

Nearly a year ago, maybe a bit more -- I can't recall -- a young man lowered himself into the orange-upholstered chair facing my desk. He had come to me by way of a former client who had sat in a courtroom, on a matter unrelated to the service I had performed for him, and observed as this young man tried to represent himself in a status conference on a paternity matter in Jackson County. My client stopped the fellow outside of the courtroom and offered him my telephone number. Call my lawyer, said my client. You need the kind of help she can give.

That afternoon, the young man and his mother visited me. He wore a T-shirt and P-coat, above nondescript work pants. Red circles rimmed his eyes, and he held his arms close to his chest as he spoke in low tones about the little girl, born of a brief relationship, for whose support he paid without being allowed much contact with her.

I sensed an unspoken story. How old is she, I asked. Four, said his mother, from the second client chair, and I briefly turned my gaze in her direction. But hers was not the tale that I needed told, and I looked back at her son. I waited.

When he spoke, I strained to hear his words. I've been in Iraq, he said, without elaboration. I glanced down at the creased papers that his mother had pulled from her purse. I thought about the Service Members Relief Act, and the rights he might have under that statute, and the snowball's chance in hell that he would have had to enforce those rights, as the clock kept ticking on his time to respond to the mother's two-pronged attack: Administrative child support request; circuit court petition to adjudicate paternity in which she sought sole custody and limited rights of visitation for this lonely soldier.

We talked about the proceeding, and I took his mother's slowly-written check for my initial fee. I showed him the method in which our state calculates child support, a misguided formula that wrongly presumes that two people living apart have spend the same amount to raise a child that they might budget if their two incomes really combined to support a single household. I gestured to the space in which some mindless child support technician had inserted his pre-discharge pay, and talked about percentages, and overnight parenting credits, and the cost of health insurance. I felt my voice trailing, until I ran out of words, and the three of us sat entangled in the heavy morass of my depiction of reality.

He looked at me across the oak expanse of my desk, and did not blink for several long seconds. Then he turned his head toward the weak light of a winter window. I don't have a job, he finally said, in a tone so close to inaudible that I might have imagined it. How can I pay that much money?

I shuffled the papers, and moved my coffee cup to a place less useful than the one it had been occupying. I shot a glance towards his mother, and another toward the closed door, before replying. What did the Army train you to do? I asked.

He did not reply at first. I repeated the question, raising my voice a bit to project over the sound of his mother's muffled sniffles. His head slowly rotated towards the smug seat in which I sat, and he said, with no remorse, no lament, and very little tone at all: What the Army trained me to do, no private employer needs.

A few weeks later he returned, alone, to sign the response and counter-petition that we sought leave to file out of time. I asked how the job search had gone. He shrugged, and told me, about some short-term work for the client who had referred him to me. I just couldn't do it, he said. I didn't ask why, or what the job had been. He told me he had been thinking about returning to active duty. My mom doesn't want me to do that, because if I do, she'll never get to see my daughter. He looked out the window at the convergence of gray asphalt and winter sky. I don't care what the papers say except I want my mom to be able to see my daughter if I get called up again. He met my eyes, and held my gaze with a fierce intensity. That's the most important thing.

Six months later, I saw him again at the pre-trial conference. In the interim, we had done a temporary order for parenting time and support. He had gotten a job working private security for a defense contractor. He seemed more comfortable with the layer of skin exposed by the turning of the year. My daughter's so wonderful, he whispered, holding out a small photograph of her. This is her kindergarten picture. Even if the genetic testing had not proven paternity, I would have known her: The intense blue eyes, the curve of her cheeks, the straw-colored hair.

We set the trial date but it had to be postponed due to the illness of the mother's lawyer and our inability to overcome two issues: My client's request for the child's surname to be hyphenated, and my client's insistence on a provision that if he returned to active duty, and was called to service out of the country, his mother would receive visitation of one weekend each month and a half-day at Christmas. We agreed on everything else: joint custody, his parenting schedule, continued child support. But she balked at the last two requests so we got ourselves a trial date, and the autumn months faded into memory. I did not hear from my client. I assumed he fared well.

I spent the first half of this week fighting for joint custody and a respectable parenting schedule for another client, having foolishly set two trials in one week, an occasional oversight which I lament each time it occurs. My assistant had been trying to reach our soldier client for several weeks to confirm his current situation. He did not answer our calls or return our e-mails and letters. Finally, I located his mother's e-mail address and reached out to her. Please ask your son to call me. She responded, I'm sure he isn't calling because he knows he owes you money. I fired off an answer: Tell him to call. We can work out any money that he owes me; just get him to call.

He finally did, this past Tuesday morning. He said that he and the child's mother had agreed that he would drop his request for name change in exchange for her consent to the provisional grandparent visitation clause we sought. Great, I told him. I'll send her lawyer an e-mail and get the paperwork ready.

We appeared on Friday, and by then, the mother's lawyer had gathered together a small collection of what she felt was fatal ammunition to sabotage the deal that my client believed the parties had struck. We sat in the judge's chambers, and she made her pitch to my astonished ears. This is not a grandparent visitation case, she said. I've told my client that the grandparents aren't a party to this case and she doesn't have to agree to the visitation clause.

The judge leveled a long look in my direction. You aren't asking that the paternal grandparents have Father's time if he is unable to exercise it, are you? he asked. No sir, I confirmed. He kept his eyes on my face. I could not have anticipated his mood, or his position, since he is a fairly new judge and I've not had the issue in front of him, nor had it arisen in many of my cases over time. I waited. He turned his steady look towards my opposing counsel. So what Ms. Corley is asking, is that in the eventuality that her client is called to active duty, and is defending the interests of the United States of America in a foreign country, for example, Afghanistan, his mother would be allowed one weekend per month to see his child. He darted his eyes back in my direction. Is that what you're asking, Ms. Corley? I confirmed that he had correctly stated our request. So if I get this right, he continued, her client only wants a provision that says that if he is off protecting America, fighting, in some place like Afghanistan, his mother would get not his allowed parenting time, but a mere one weekend each month, and four hours at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I think that is a very reasonable request in this unique situation, and surely there is some point of agreement here.

The woman's lawyer went off to talk to her client about writing and walls, and I went out to the hallway where my client awaited the outcome of our in-chambers discussion. A long stretch of time went by, during which I reached out to touch a silver bracelet with black writing that circled my client's wrist. I asked about the names on it, and he told me that the two soldiers whose names he wore were members of his platoon. He whispered the tale of their deaths, which he had witnessed. We sat in silence because I had no words with which to express my sympathy and no genuine basis for an empathetic response. Nothing I have experienced could compare.

In the end, we agreed to the one weekend per month, and four hours at either Christmas or Thanksgiving, depending on which holiday was allocated to the father that year. The mother took the stand, replying, That is correct, to every question, in a cold voice with a little toss of her head. I pitied her child.

When it was my client's turn, I stood before the podium. I knew that there were a few jurisdictional questions that needed to be addressed, including the fact that at the time that the case had been filed, he was a member of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, serving on active duty. Yes, ma'am, I was, he acknowledged, and the red rim around his eyes intensified and tears arose, hovering as he struggled with the pain that had too long stopped in his heart. On cross-examination, the mother's attorney asked him about his potential return to active duty. I'm thinking about it, he admitted, in a voice that reproached her for asking and me for telling him that he would only have to answer most questions by saying yes or no. The lawyer looked down at her legal pad, and asked how long his reserve contract lasted. I signed a two-year commitment last July, but this reserve thing is not really working out for me. She had no further questions.

The judge told him that he could stand down. A few formal words were spoken, and the logistics of judgment-drafting were discussed. When the hearing had concluded, I told my client that I would get a copy of the judgment to him and that he should not need to do anything further. He murmured his thanks. Then he shook my hand, and exited through the heavy door of the courtroom. The judge, his court reporter, and I stood motionless in the lingering shroud of silence. Then I, in my turn, thanked the judge. I did not say why. My statement could have been the meaningless expression of appreciation uttered by any lawyer, any where, at the conclusion of any case.

But we both knew it was not.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.