I love working for the government. Nothing compares to the breadth of experience I got during my initial years as a government lawyer. Certainly nothing could have prepared me for my very first court appearance either. Some things can only be learned through experience.
I’d like to say “it was a dark and stormy night” but no, it was a very bright and crisp Monday morning. I anxiously awoke at the break of dawn and headed off to a small, unremarkable town in Southern Ohio (name withheld to protect the innocent). After a three hour life threatening slide through the snow, I drove past the town square, stopped at the town’s only traffic light, and proceeded to park at a 25 cent per hour meter in front of the town courthouse/police station—easily identifiable since it was the only two story building with a flag on top.
I strolled in past the sleeping security guard and was promptly greeted by a jovial old lady. Pearl was her name. And Pearl seemed quite perplexed to see me, an unfamiliar and unescorted Black woman.
Her: “Oh, hello dear. Are you lost?”
Me: “I don’t think so. I’m here for the hearing.”
Her: Pause. Then, “Are you the cleaning lady?”
Me: “No.” I mean I was wearing a cheap suit but cleaning lady? Come on!
Her: “Court reporter?”
Me: “You’re getting warmer.”
Her: “I’m all out of guesses.”
Me: “I’m the lawyer for the state.” BOOM!
You see, the salary may be meager but the title is huge. I walk into a courtroom as “the State,” the government, your mean Uncle Sam (Aunt Sammy in my case). Nothing scares people more than when they have to deal with the big bad state. And I saw it. Yes, I saw fear in her eyes. Or was that a cataract?
Anyway, she led me to my seat and told me that opposing counsel would be there shortly. He was busy having breakfast with the judge. You have to understand that everyone knows everyone in small towns, which is both quaint and a little creepy. So, while opposing counsel was literally breaking bread with the decision maker, I reviewed my notes and fidgeted with my pen. Pearl stared intently.
Finally, both the judge and my opponent appeared. I breathed a sigh of relief. Suddenly, a crowd started trickling in. One by one, the entire town populace filled up the courtroom. When the “defendant” walked in he literally got a standing ovation. Loud applause, cheers, whistles, the whole nine. I’d lost the case before it started. I didn’t need to say anything, I’d already lost this case. In the government attorney biz, this is what’s called getting “homered.”
Between loud boos and jeers, I kept my comments to a minimum. In fact, every time I said something, opposing counsel would rise and scream, “Your honor, with all due respect, the state is full of crap.” Each time, he would be loudly applauded. Let me be fair and say that at least I learned that eloquence (and justice) is apparently more subjective than I suspected.
The judge decided in favor of my opponent from the bench. Again came the loud applause and standing ovation. I put my notes in my little briefcase and sashayed out to my car. Believe it or not, everyone was polite. Very polite. They just don’t take kindly to strangers, especially if the stranger happens to be “the State”.
As I drove back to my office, I played the hearing over and over again in my mind. I took solace in knowing that I did enough to preserve my issues for appeal. And, grinning ear to ear, I thought, “we all know the big bad state always wins on appeal.”