Tuesday, February 27, 2007
"So, Paul, are all Florida judges bozos?"
JUDGE LARRY (THE WEEPER) SEIDLIN
"What about it? Are all Florida judges clowns?"
That's what my Left Coast pals are asking after the bizarre performance last week of Broward County Probate Judge Larry Seidlin, who presided over the Anna Nicole Smith Traveling Circus and Freak Show.
Who better to answer the question? My credentials: I covered the courts in South Florida for The Miami Herald, back in the days when people read newspapers. I practiced law in South Florida for 17 years, appearing in front of some judges who were brilliant, others who were dim, some hard-working, some lazy, some conscientious, and some downright crooked.
In every Miami courtroom, a sign hangs above the bench. "We who labor here seek only the truth." In my first novel, To Speak for the Dead, tough-guy lawyer Jake Lassiter says:
"There oughta be a footnote. 'Subject to the truth being concealed by lying witnesses, distorted by sleazy lawyers, and excluded by inept judges.'”
Which brings us back to Judge Larry Seidlin, who cried when he announced his ruling after several days of malapropisms, misstatements of the law, and general chaos in the court.
(My personal favorite was the Judge referring to the deceased as "Anna Nicole Miller." Well, she liked to shop, right?)
But I come to praise The Weeper, not to bury him. In my opinion, the guy has a good heart. No one may ever confuse him with Brandeis or Holmes, but he means well.
See, I have a conflict of interest. My wife, the lovely Renee, was married by Judge Seidlin. No, not married to him. Larry Seidlin presided over Renee's marriage to a person other than my manly self. She has also played tennis with the Judge, considers him a friend, and has cautioned me, in stern legal language, not to say anything negative about His Honor.
This came after I asked Renee if I could post photos of Judge Seidlin presiding at her marriage. She informed me, both orally and in writing, that should I do so, she would sue me for invasion of privacy, infliction of mental distress, and violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Not only that, no more bok choy in the wok, which frankly, was almost enough to make me violate her strict instructions. But...no photos and not one negative comment.
I will relate this one tidbit, however. At the crucial point in her wedding, the Judge asked: "Do you, Renee, promise to love, cherish and keep Carl healthy so that he can play racquetball with me?"
And that's it, because I do not want to have an injunction served against me or find my tequila laced with arsenic.
As you can tell, I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with the justice system. Yes, I'm cynical. But I also retain hope that the words carved in the granite -- Equal Justice Under Law -- really mean something.
This month, I tried to express this ambivlance in a short article published in "The Penn Stater." I'm re-printing the piece here, which also gives me an excuse to show Old Main in the snow two weeks ago.
DISORDER IN THE COURT
“Has the jury reached a verdict?”
The words send a jolt of electricity up my spine.
“We have, Your Honor.”
There’s a ringing in my ears. Will I even hear what they say?
”The clerk will publish the verdict.”
My palms are sweaty. And I’m only the lawyer. Imagine the guy sitting next to me.
“We, the jury, find the defendant...”
For the past 16 years, I’ve been trying to capture that moment. The tension, the hope, the fear. And while I write fiction, to a large degree, I’ve borrowed from real life for my courtroom thrillers.
A week after graduating from Penn State, I started work as a criminal court reporter with The Miami Herald. Never been in a courtroom, I didn’t know habeas corpus from an bottlenose porpoise. A prosecutor took pity, showed me around, and taught me a few Latin expressions. (“Mero Motu,” it turns out, is not a businessman’s greeting in Tokyo, but rather an act undertaken on the court’s own motion).
I began having lunch with the prosecutor and two of his colleagues. They wowed me with their war stories, singing paeans to the majesty of the law and the high calling of public service. So sure enough, I went to law school, and my three prosecutor pals became judges. Now, flash forward 20 years. Those judges must be deans of the profession, right? Nope. All three are in federal prison, convicted of bribery, one of them for “selling” the name of a confidential informant so the defendant could arrange his murder.
So is it any wonder that I’m cynical about the halls of justice, where as Lenny Bruce once complained, the only justice is in the halls? Is it a surprise that judges in my books are usually lame-brained and occasionally crooked? (One judge, in feeble attempt to be fair, simply alternates rulings on objections. "Sustained." “Overruled.” “Sustained.” “Overruled.”)
But back to the Miami courthouse in 1970 where, as a fledgling reporter, I also made friends with the Courthouse Gang, a multi-ethnic posse of retirees who showed up every day for the free entertainment. My buddies all knew a good story and invariably guided me to the right courtroom and filled me in on testimony I missed. The Gang lives on in fiction. Myron (The Maven) Mendelsohn, Teresa Toraño, and Cadillac Johnson use their unique skills to help the squabbling lawyers in my “Solomon vs. Lord” novels.
The last trial I covered as a reporter was a doozy. Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, was charged with indecent exposure for exposing himself at a Miami concert. One of the prosecutors was a mini-skirted former beauty queen named Ellen Morphonios, renowned for her ribald sense of humor. Just before opening statements, Ellen told me her trial strategy: “I’m gonna have the clerk stamp that dirtbag’s equipment and call it ‘State’s Exhibit One.’” Hey, you don’t hear that on COURT TV.
Courtrooms may look like churches, trimmed with mahogany and exuding an air of solemnity. And sure, some proceedings are deadly dull, but there’s a surprising amount of humor between bench and bar.
In my first year practicing law, I tried a case before a colorful old judge named Frederick Barad. I thought I was doing great, but in closing argument, I noticed that a juror was sound asleep.
“Your Honor,” I whispered, gesturing toward juror number three, who was snoring loudly.
“What do you want from me?” the judge replied. “You put him to sleep. You wake him up.”