Saturday, October 8, 2016

Saturday Musings, 08 October 2016

Good morning,

Yesterday I sat with my head slightly bowed, hands held still in my lap.  My eyelids lowered, not with the burden of my fatigue but with resolve.  I felt my body strain, fury rising from my belly.  A quiver ran through me, hard and fierce.  The shudder subsided and I listened to the drone of my opponent.

Later, after the judge had pronounced her reluctant ruling in my favor, I trudged to the car pulling my trial bag behind me and remembered a late night in Brookfield, Missouri, when I argued jury instructions, sweaty in my blouse and wrinkled suit.  The judge had long since shed his robe and loosened his tie.  Each side had commandeered a different private room.

My boss and law clerk waited in the county law library as I ran back and forth to the courtroom.  Piles of law books toppled with each careless slam of the heavy old door against its frame.  I kicked my silly girl shoes from my feet as soon as our cadre hid behind the oak to grumble about the judge's complaints.  Wording, sentence structure, whatever we did, the man criticized us while the defendant's lawyers, smooth and serene, let the judge do their work for them.

John Arens, the head of my law firm, seemed unaffected by the activity.  He jiggled a stack of Susan B. Anthony coins from hand to hand.  The coins had become a symbol of the farmers whom he represented.  In those days, family farmers hoarded those coins, even as they struggled to keep their land, devastated by drought and the burden of borrowing when cash flowed free in the 1970s. Banks and the Federal agricultural lenders, the Federal Land Bank and Production Credit Association, pushed foreclosures and litigation to collect deficiencies from defaulting borrowers.  Our firm and a handful of other legal teams around the country specialized in representing the families desperate to keep their old homesteads.  Farmers across the Midwest huddled in their farmhouses, angry at the government, predicting the collapse of the economy and the sudden devaluing of paper money.  They buried cans of coins in the yards as insurance for the post-apocalyptic tyranny.

As we fought to defend one of those farmers, night closed around the courthouse.  Exhaustion overcame me.  Sweat ran from my law clerk's brow.  Ron, over-weight and puffing from exertion, pushed the nearest pile of law reporters aside so I could sit.  We  looked at each other, and at our boss standing unfazed at the other end of the room, smiling, calm.  At issue was the fate of our client's family farm, which his family had held for three generations.  Did the bank promise not to call his note on the default which followed the over-extending of his finances?  An exhibit which Ron and I had enlarged for the jury showed a faint erasure, the outlines of which John had quietly, calmly, shown a witness as the man sat humble in the box.  Yes, the banker admitted.  That is my handwriting.  I did change those figures.  I did alter that document.

We thought we had him.  We thought we'd proved that the man had fiddled with our client's application in ways that made the bank liable.  But if the judge did not approve the instructions we wanted, and let us submit the case for deliberation, that stunning revelation would be meaningless.  The painted farmhouse, the tidy kitchen, the stacks of split wood, the beds with their worn quilts -- all would be lost to the auctioneer's gavel with the rusty tractor, the bales of hay and the cattle which that hay was meant to feed.

Long glances passed between the members of our team as the bailiff rapped on the door and bid us to come back to the courtroom for the judge's last pronouncement of what claims he would let stand.  I drew my jacket over my rumpled blouse.  Ron pulled his tie over his head and straightened the knot.  John looked as freshly shaved as he had twelve hours earlier when we first came into the Courthouse.  His short grey hair lay perfectly combed across the crown of his head.  The starch of his shirt had held through the heavy heat of the old building.  He led the way, with squared shoulders and an easy bearing.

The  judge sat over us, on his bench.  He had not taken up his robe but had assumed his jacket.  I felt his gaze linger on the sagging contours of my face before moving to the quiet features of my boss.  Mr. Arens, said the judge, addressing the man who had forged the way through the law's murky waters to this moment.  You seem remarkably unconcerned about these jury instructions.

John smiled, an act which triggered a ripple of concern deep in my gut. I knew that look.  He set the stack of coins on our table and spread his hands.  Your honor, he replied.  I already know what I am going to say to the jury.  It doesn't matter to me what you decide to tell them.

In thirty-three years of practicing law, I have never seen a more shocked look from the bench, not in any courtroom, state or federal.  The next morning, when that judge read the  very limited set of instructions to the jury, the weight of his revenge fell heavy on our client's shoulders.  He had gutted our case, taken all of the claims which could have garnered punitive damages and reduced the matter to a simple breach of contract.  We got the jury but not the verdict that would have paid our bill and made the client more than whole.

We saved our client's  farm.  The jury gave us enough for me to go into the courthouse conference room with my pens and paper, and negotiate a debt write-down.  My boss never lost his placid smile.  Afterwards, when we had gone across the square to the bank and signed the papers, when we had driven out to the client's farm and eaten lunch at his mother's table,  Ron and I excused ourselves to walk around the yard and feign interest  in the vegetable garden.  Inside, John closed the case by negotiating his percentage.  Ten percent?  Twenty?  We did not know, and did not want to know.  Thirty percent of nothing should be nothing but somehow, it would morph into something hefty that filled sackcloths in the hold of our private airplane.

In yesterday's courtroom I had no trouble holding my face inscrutable as the judge ruled in my favor.  My opponent had reckoned without the legal holdings which supported what I wanted.  She thought she had struck some crude alliance with the court, that I stood on the outside of their circle with my client while she and hers dwelt in the inner sanctum.  She calculated badly, but I did not gloat.

I thanked the judge, gathered my papers, and took myself home.  I've learned my lessons.  Indeed, right can make might.  But it can also become fodder for revenge, and so I step carefully in every patch of grass as I make my way across the farm yard at the end of the day. My clients do not pay me in huge piles of coins, in crumpled bills bagged and stashed in a cargo hold.  But I learned from someone who made his living like that, and I learned my lessons well.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley


No comments:

Post a Comment

The Missouri Mugwump™

My photo
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.