TWEAKING THE ATTORNEYS
by Janice Parker
Have you ever had the desire to poke a little fun at attorneys? Maybe give a gentle kick to their egotistically padded backsides? I have great respect for those who choose the legal profession but I lose my cool when I see the esteemed members of the bar, under the pretense of exercising due process of law take off on lengthy, unrelated tangents when questioning a witness. Certainly it is their job to represent their client's rights and interest. However, some seem to be so entranced with the sound of their own voices that questions become elaborate monologues. The more they puff into their private hot air balloon the greater my desire to use an old fashioned hat pin.
I'm a retired public school teacher and a ten year volunteer as a Guardian ad Litem in Family Court. My cases deal with juveniles who have been remanded to State custody in matters of abuse, neglect or delinquency. But, isn't the child represented by a lawyer? Always. Then what is the purpose of a GAL? I heard one lawyer explain this to a twelve-year old.
"I'm here to represent your legal interest. Betty, here, will use her common sense to help us keep both feet on the ground." Once assigned, I will be a part of that child's team until they are released from custody or turn eighteen. I attend state review sessions, visit the family home and am privy to all attorney consultations at court.
Today we'll start a scheduled five day hearing to free a child for adoption, or in legal parlance a termination of parental rights. It is extreme, infrequent and an action taken only after the state feels that all other options have been explored. The scene is familiar. The girl, age eight, is the eldest in a third generation of a family lost in the quicksand of abuse and neglect. Her mother, only fifteen when she was born, had been in and out of the state system most of her life because her own mother kept relapsing into a haze of alcohol. After three years of failed attempts to get some sort of solid foundation for the child the state filed papers.
We have quite a crowd in the tiny courtroom: Mother, transferred guardianship to her mother when the girl was just a baby; father, a convicted sex offender won't be released from prison for another two years. He could get out earlier if he'd take and complete a sex offender program but chooses not to. Grandma is legal guardian but has a history of alcohol abuse and emotional instability. She successfully completed many rehabilitation programs over the years but falls off the wagon again and again when the pressure of a crowded home life becomes too much. Three social workers for the state, the five attorneys and I complete the group. We gather just before 9 A.M. on Monday. However, because the first witness for the state, although present, is not listed as number one, two attorneys delay the opening of court for an hour while they rearrange their heads. I quip to a bailiff, "How far do you think these yahoos would get if they tried this stunt in a classroom?"
"Not far," she shot back.
When we finally get underway and the lawyers begin their questions that quip keeps bouncing into my mind. I start a second set of notes. I'll use one for my formal presentation to the court on Friday. The other is a list of lawyer-courtroom vs. teacher-classroom comparisons. I call that one my SSA or Save my Sanity Activity. I have no idea of using that list for anything more than my own amusement but as the week progresses the notion of five copies grows mighty tempting. One attorney can't resist going all the way 'round the barn before each question he asks. And, he makes sure he has questions for each witness. Ho Hum. Another nearly has apoplexy when the judge asks for a thirty minute earlier opening for one day so that we may wrap this up by the end of the week.
We assemble for closing statements on Friday, but before either the rest of the participants or the judge is invited in, the child's attorney turns to the others, puts one foot on a chair and calls a conference. He's indignant because he's just found out that he and I differ. Therefore, he wants a postponement. Three of his constituents jump all over him.
"Shouldn't matter that Betty's opinion differs, you're the child's attorney."
"But I don't think the prospective parents we've seen will adopt."
"So what? This is about Gloria, not prospective parents."
"Cum on Charlie." Without a second thought I whip out my SSA version, call for their attention and speak with carefully measured tones.
"While I'm not a member of the bar I am the only person in this room who has been with Gloria since she was first placed in state custody three years ago. Yes, I have an opinion and will present it when the judge calls on me. However, that's not why I asked for your attention. As you may or may not know I was a teacher before I retired and as such I have a few questions for you." I pause and change to my teacher voice.
"Had this been a classroom, not a courtroom this past week-how would you have been graded?" I read indifference, annoyance and boredom on the five faces before me but I was now in too far to bail out. "Would you ask for postponement of an open book exam because, although you had all your notes, the questions were asked out of order?"
Three attorneys snicker, the other two shuffle papers.
"Would you ask for a change in the exam schedule because you have a major project due the week before?" Surely you jest. "Would you run crying to the principal disputing a thirty minute earlier opening of school for one day because it was inconvenient for you to arrive that early? Set your alarm clock would have been my crisp reply to that one.
"I didn't invent the expression K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid.) Judge Judy frequently uses that to keep people on track and to the point. But, then, she has only a thirty minute program and her defendants don't have the expertise of lawyers.
"Every teacher loves bright, inquiring minds but if had all five of you been in my classroom at one time I'd reserve either a bed in the nearest mental ward or a job taking out trash at McDonald's. You've been most fortunate to have a very patient judge on the bench this week."
Absolute silence. I give each a teacher stare to emphasize my point. Only one lawyer looks me in the eye. The others look like five-year old kids with a purloined cookie in each hand. They quickly find a pen, a tie or papers demanding their complete attention. While I had no idea how they would react I have to drop my eyes as well or I will burst into laughter at my imaginary sight of all those cookie crumbs. I regain my composure and give them the good news.
"That's enough of my nit picking. The law deals in facts but there is a human element to be considered as well. At no time during this week have any of you failed to respect witnesses who appeared or the seriousness that what we do here will affect a little girl for the rest of her life. I commend you on that point. Thank you and class is dismissed."
How do these legal eagles appreciate a dressing down? Probably not very well but when the judge enters to hear our summations she presides over five attorneys who are models of decorum, dignity and brevity.
I am a retired public school teacher and college assistant professor who began a writing career at 60+ and I live in the mountains of Vermont. Hello Linda, Thank you for the invitation to submit a story. I did this as an assignment for Venita Helton because I thought it would tickle her funny bone and received cartoons along with her constructive comments. I've used those to rewrite but have not chosen a submission site. Anything to