Sometimes, The Popcorn Bites Back

When I was a new baby lawyer, I once went to get an order signed by the commissioner before he went back on the bench.  I stood in the doorway of the chambers, waiting for him to motion me back.  He looked up, and motioned me in.  He took my order, signed it, and handed it back to me.  He let out a long sigh, and asked “Did you see that?”  He was referring to the parties who were arguing right before he ruled, and took a recess.

“Yes.” I said.  I wasn’t about to offer an opinion.

“Sometimes, I feel like people are pelting me with popcorn.”

This exchange stuck with me over the years.

Today, I went to Court late in the afternoon with an Amended Order.  The Commissioner on the bench was the one officially assigned to that location, although in 8 years of practicing in that court, it was the first time I actually came before him.  I gave my Order to the Bailiff and sat down.  A woman was before the court, seeking a restraining order against her ex husband, who was represented by his attorney who was appearing on the phone.  After a few minutes, the Commissioner asked the attorney “Was your client served with the papers for today’s hearing?”

There was a long pause.  The attorney said “I have not been authorized by my client to accept service of process, your Honor.”  At this point, the ex-wife started in, talking about how she’s NEVER had an address for him, which has always created problems.  The Commissioner stopped her, and said “Well here is how we’re going to fix this, Counselor.  You will be here in my Courtroom, tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m.  You will have a permanent address for service of process for your client.  I don’t care if it is a P.O. Box, your office, or a diner.  But if there is no address, I will advise this woman that the court rule…CR 70 or 71, that if she has no good address, she can serve by mail to the last known address.  And you know what that means, right Counselor?”  The Attorney said “Yes.”

By now, I couldn’t conceal my grin, having encountered a similar situation years before when I practiced family law, but not having been fortunate enough to a have a Commissioner willing to deal with the issue so...directly.  The Commissioner saw my grin, and had trouble concealing his own.  “Make sure your client understands that if you aren’t here with an address for service of process, or having authorized you to accept service of process going forward, she will end up getting whatever she asks for in petitions to the Court by default.  I’ll see you tomorrow, Counselor.”

The next party got up, when he called out her name.  She got up, and was reluctant to come forward.  If I wasn’t an attorney, and had just witnessed that exchange, I’d have been reluctant to approach the bench, too.  She approached.   He asked her “You want to withdraw this restraining order?”  I could barely hear her mumble “Yes.”  His brow furrowed as he flipped through the pages.  “Why do you want to withdraw this?”  I couldn’t make out her response.  He asked her “How about I remove it all but the paragraph that says he can’t hit you?”  She replied “Ok.”  He looked at the order again.  “Is this what you want?”  She answered “Yes.”  He looked at the order again and asked “Did he ask you to this?”  “Yes.”, she replied.   He looked at her and said “I’ve looked at his record.  The police are very familiar with him.  Like they know him on sight.  From the front and back.  I’ll alter this order like we have agreed, but there is very likely a criminal restraining order in place also.”  He signed the order and gave it to her.  [There was more to this exchange, but I omitted it because I see no need to recount details that could detract from what dignity she had.  But a very telling part of the exchange was when he asked her about several social programs set up to help women in her circumstances, and was told in response to each one he named that they couldn’t help her or didn’t help her.]

During this exchange, I sat listening quietly, and thinking “I couldn’t do this.  I couldn’t listen to this stuff day after day, and not either lose my mind, or become so mean and bitter that I still couldn’t do my job.”  I am thankful for people like this Commissioner, and a great many family law attorneys who are good at what they do, and can retain a professional composure.  God bless them, because the alternative of NOT having them would be even more awful.

Anyone who thinks that the answer to society’s problems is MORE government should have to spend a week in their local court that has jurisdiction over felonies and family law cases.  Sit in court and listen to the things said in the hearings.  Walk the halls and listen to the conversations.  Listen to people as you walk through the parking lots.  And if you still think that more government is the answer, you will never understand.

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2 Comments

Filed under The Practice

2 responses to “Sometimes, The Popcorn Bites Back

  1. I would never in a million years accept a position as a judge on a bench. Imagine seeing 1000 parties a year for 20 years. And having a 1% error rate. That means you screwed 200 — TWO HUNDRED — people. No thank you.

  2. I used to volunteer at a crisis clinic when I was in 20’s. One of the counselors there reminds me of your Commissioner. Day after day, listening to men, women and children so broken and lost, and day after day of swimming against the tide. I never knew how she did it.

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