I was in the Superior Court today, down in Monmouth County. That's where the Criminal Division is retrying the State's case against Rabbi Neulander. I only know that because the talking heads from Court TV parked in the Attorney/Jury Parking Lot, rather than that general public lot. They had taped down the power lines for their cameras and transmission vans across the parking lot, which the lawyers, myself included, gleefully ripped up as we drove in for trial call. It's a small bit of passive aggressive revenge for the irritation caused by the court reporters during the Impeachment and 2000 Election cases, back when I was on the Hill.
I was in on a Case Management Conference, where the Judge sets the discovery schedule and addresses any outstanding issues. A Case Management Conference normally is a lot like ordering from a Chinese Take-out Menu. "I'll take the Standard, 90-Day Discovery Track... um... 30 days to propound answers to interrogatories and depositions, and Trial Call in 120 days." Thus begins the countdown to the end of a marriage, spoken with the conviction of an order for General Tso's Chicken and Wonton Soup. Today, though, I knew it was going to be different because there was no attorney on the other side. It was a pro se litigant, a man representing himself. In other words, I had a fruitcake on my hands.
In matrimonial law, you learn to hate pro se litigants rather quickly. They argue from the perspective of emotion, of hatred for their former spouse, or just of plumb madness, asserting that there was no way the Court could ever make them toe the line. They learn that they're incorrect usually after only two contempt of court convictions.
I made my way through the reporters, the chain smoking jurors and dead eyed Sheriff's Officers, to the Attorney's Entrance, avoiding the long line for the metal detectors by the Family Part Entrance to the Courthouse. Across the yellow, institutional linoleum I walked, up to the first floor, where Judge Lincoln's chambers were. Judge Lincoln was new to me. I had never argued before him, and only knew that he was experienced in the matrimonial field. Lincoln's docketing clerk, on the other hand, was a face I recognized. He had been the clerk for Judge Kilo, who had heard my first four cases - all pro bono defense cases - back in early Spring 2002.
The docketing clerk waived me over with a smirk on his face. "I understand you're up against a pro se today. Think you can handle it?"
"Piss off, wise guy, I don't even know if the plaintiff is going to show up."
"How about your girl?" the clerk asked.
"Defendant is definitely not in the mood to be in the same room with the guy. I'm off the leash on this one."
"Wonderful. I'll have Judge Kilo's special cell readied for you." Judge Kilo, who used to do domestic violence actions, used to have a special cell in the basement of the courthouse set aside for lawyers he held in contempt.
"Remember," I replied, "I want the fancy mints on the pillow."
I walked back to the gallery of the courtroom, past the mahogany jury box never used in the Family Part, and slouched down in my back row seat. Just as in church, I mused, I find myself compelled to hide out in the back row.. I flipped open my copy of In Ruins, a new book on architecture and archaeology, and began the waiting game.
In the front, Judge Lincoln began the archaic, formal process of terminating a marriage. The parties and their respective attorneys took their seats, the man at the plaintiff's table, the woman at the defendant's.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are here today for the matter of Smith v. Smith, Docket number FM-11-21119-01F., Counsel, please make your appearances," the Judge announced.
"Good morning, Judge, Mr. Doe of Doe & Doe, LLC, on behalf of the plaintiff," the man's attorney announced. I studied his gray hair and pale facial stubble. He addressed the Judge as "Judge" in open court. Bad form, I thought. Manners, in law, are as important as being right.
"Good morning your honor," the much younger, female attorney for the defendant began, "Ms. Roe of Roe & Casey, P.A., on behalf of the defendant." Yeah, you caught that too, didn't you? I thought, noting the defense attorney's emphasis of "Your Honor" instead of "Judge."
"Thank you," the Judge responded. "Let's begin. Mr. Doe, sir, you may present the Cause of Action."
"Thanks, Judge," the plaintiff's attorney began. He then turned to his client.
"Mr. Smith, you are here today to put through your settlement of your cause of action for divorce, correct?"
"Yes," the client answered, meekly. He shuffled his feet nervously beneath the table.
Mr. Plaintiff sports a pair of Ferragamo's, I see. Pricey shoes for a man with a two-bit lawyer.
"And you recall the complaint filed on June 1, 2001?" Plaintiff's attorney asked.
"Do you recall the allegations of extreme cruelty as you filed them on June 1, 2001?"
The plaintiff paused, a bug-eyed look of fear crossing his face. He couldn't remember what was in the Complaint.
Bad form, sport. You should have introduced the Complaint first, I thought.
The Plaintiff's attorney realized his mistake. "Allow me to introduce the Complaint filed June 1, 2001 as Document P-1. Do you recognize this document?"
"Is this your signature on page 5?"
"And these are the allegations of extreme cruelty you made in the complaint?"
"Yes," the Plaintiff answered.
"And these allegations were true at the time of signing, as well as today?"
"Thank you." The Plaintiff's Attorney turned to the Judge, pausing only to breathe. "Judge, can I address the agreement?"
"You may, Counsel," the Judge Answered.
I checked my watch as the Plaintiff's Attorney asked his client whether he had seen the document before. 10:00. I had been in court for two hours, and my adversary still had not arrived. I motioned to the docketing clerk, pointing at him, then pointing to my eyes with two fingers, and then to the door with my thumb. He slipped from his chair beside the Judge and walked out of the back of the courtroom, to the chamber passageway. Behind each courtroom in New Jersey is a secured passage that leads directly to a Judge's Chambers, his or her offices. Attorneys and law clerks are the chosen few that get to see what are usually the overwhelmingly antique-laden offices down the silent, dark chamber passageway. I stepped out the front of the courtroom, meeting the clerk as he rounded the bend from the passageway.
"No adversary still?" He asked.
The clerk turned to the bailiff standing guard outside Judge L's courtroom. "Did a Mr. Marbury check in with you?"
"What?" The bailiff asked.
The clerk tried again. "Did a Mr. Marbury check in with you?"
The bailiff shook his head and cupped his hand to his ear. I noticed a full bouquet of white hair streaming from the old man's ears. Irritated, I tried.
"Did... A... Mr.... Marbury.... Check In... With... You....? I asked, nearly shouting.
"No. I'm going to get a danish," the bailiff responded, and then doddered off down the hallway.
"Oh, for fuck's sake, could you get someone that isn't deaf for these jobs?" I remarked to the clerk.
"Hear? The senile old bird doesn't even know who I am and I've been here for six years."
"Christ... all right. He hasn't shown up.... so, no plaintiff. The little shit's been stringing us on with discovery for months. He hasn't even filed his CIS."
The CIS, or Case Information Statement, is a mandatory filing that addresses a party's financial state, including income, taxes, assets, expenses, lifestyle (i.e., from how many Eames Chairs owned to how many packs of cigarettes smoked), and child care expenses. Without this, a case lacks direction.
"So what do you want to do?" the clerk asked, looking at me from behind glassy, over-tired eyes.
"Dismiss the little shit. With prejudice. I don't want him back here with his tail between his legs."
The clerk smiled, "And then what, your client and his go back to being married?"
"No, we just submit a new complaint and get a later vesting date on the asset distribution."
"And with your office, that will take all of a week," he said, reflecting the common perception that my firm churns files.
"Yeah, well, more like this afternoon. Still, dismiss him," I answered.
The clerk took in a deep breath. "You sure?"
"Ah... fuck 'em if he can't take a joke."
We laughed, enjoying the bilious game that lawyers play with language. The same false spite that causes me to allege that I want proof of the death of an adversary's mother before granting adjournments, usually by the phrase "Hey, produce the body," causes others to comment on domestic violence law's reluctance to punish first time offenders with the phrase, "that's just the 'one free smack' rule," paraphrasing the tort law rule concerning dangerous pets.
We went back into the courtroom, where the uncontested judgment continued. The defense attorney had begun her examination of her client.
"Ms. Smith, you read the document marked by Plaintiff's Counsel as P-2, the Property Settlement Agreement?"
"Yes," the client answered. She was more certain, more assertive with her answers.
Mr. Smith must have been a real bastard, eh, Ms. Smith? I thought.
"And you understand the terms of this agreement?" Defense Counsel asked.
"Do you understand that you are waiving your right to alimony under this agreement?"
"And you are satisfied with the terms of this agreement?"
"Are you satisfied with the representation provided to you by my firm?"
"Are you under the influence of any drugs or alcohol that may impair your judgment?"
The process had come to a close. The defense attorney turned to the Judge.
"No further questions, Your Honor."
"Very well then," the Judge responded, "Ms. Smith, is there an issue of you changing your name?"
"Yes, Your Honor, I wish to go back to my maiden name," the Defendant answered.
"Spell that for the Court."
"And, Ms. Smith," the Judge continued, now addressing his section of the well-rehearsed, timeworn script, "Are you changing your name for the purposes of fraud, avoiding creditors, bankruptcy, or any other reason not allowed by law?"
"No..." The defendant answered, confused by the notion of a crime being committed just by returning to her maiden name.
"Very well, then," the Judge answered, having heard the magic word, "I will make my disposition on the record. Smith v. Smith, Docket Number FM-11-21119-01F, before the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth Vicinage, on this day, November 19, 2002, I hereby make my ruling. The plaintiff has stated his case for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Judgment will be granted on that part. Defendant has made her case for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Judgment will be granted on that part. The parties have submitted a Property Settlement Agreement, and I am satisfied that it is fair, just, and not the product of coercion or distress. The Agreement will be incorporated under cover of this order and filed with the Clerk. Case Closed. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen." The preceding being a seamless burst of decision, not halted by breath or thought as it rattled across the courtroom.
I gathered my papers. It was my turn. The parties and their counsel made their way past the swinging doors and into the gallery. Mr. Smith and the very-soon-to-be Miss Jones looked at each other awkwardly. It had been an amicable divorce. Now they were nothing to each other, at least until the installment payments on equitable distribution kicked in.
I let them pass, then grabbed my briefcase and exhibit box, and walked to the defendant's table. The docketing clerk slipped up to the Judge's bench and began whispering. The Judge nodded, and then the Clerk disappeared into the chambers passageway.
"Good Morning, Mr. B," the Judge began. I understand we will be dismissing your case today?"
"That is correct, Your Honor. Plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed and sanctions should be imposed for failure to prosecute," I answered.
"Very well, Mr. B. The order will be prepared by my clerk. Thank you very much... and," at this the Judge checked his watch, "this will be all. Court is adjourned."
The Judge, without the pomp of requiring the Sheriff's Officer who guarded the interior of his courtroom to enforce the "all rise" rule, hopped off the bench.
"When is your firm going to come through with another golf outing?" He asked.
"Next June, like clockwork, I assume," I answered.
"Good. Judge Kilo owes me a rematch."
I chuckled, and then sat back down, waiting for the clerk to bring in the order. He walked in, smirking as he carried the three sheets of carbon paper that constituted the Order for Dismissal.
"You owe me, you little bitch." The clerk was in a good mood, having escaped a full day of trial.
"As always. Gin or Scotch?"
"Your firstborn. Sign the order."
I signed off, grabbed the pink and yellow copies - one for me, one for the client - and packed my bags. I had just succeeded in setting back the termination date of marriage against an absent adverse client. By the time he realized that my doing so had cost him whatever stock and income he had received since the first date of divorce, the adverse client (soon to be a defendant, once we served him with our complaint) would be at least $200,000 in the hole.
Hell. Fuck 'em if he can't take a joke.
1. Names and distinguishing features bear no resemblance to any actual case or attorneys. However, an actual uncontested was heard in the Monmouth Vicinage today.
updated 7/31/03: Initials replaced with pseudonyms. Formatting changes.