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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jul. 1, 202105:00 AM EST

From the Bench: Thoughts on the law: From awe to hilarity

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After 40 years in the profession, I have some stories to tell.

By Karen Cole • 4th Circuit Judge

For each lawyer and each judge, a life in the law produces a constant and remarkably diverse array of unforgettable moments.

Some moments are tragic, some deeply satisfying, some awe-inspiring and some riotously and unexpectedly funny.

As I contemplate retirement from the law after 40 years, I recall vividly some of each type. Let me begin with the humorous moments.

At a dissolution of marriage hearing years ago, the attorneys advised me that their clients had resolved all property distribution issues with one exception: They were unable to agree on who should get a valuable zebra rug. No appraiser was going to testify.

I mused aloud, “So what is the value of a used zebra rug?”  Attorney Denise Watson asked, deadpan: “To the parties or to the zebra?” 

When they were 4 years old, Denise’s son and one of my sons were in day care together. Her son was accustomed to women in positions of authority. His pediatrician was a woman.  His mother was a lawyer. He knew I was a judge.

One day, Denise was running late to a short, early-morning hearing before my suite-mate, Judge Henry Davis. After giving her son strict instructions on the rules of good behavior, Denise took him to the hearing with her.

Afterward, I asked her why she was chortling with laughter. Seems her son, after leaving the hearing, appeared puzzled and asked his mother, “You mean boys can be judges, too?”

Before he became our Chief Judge, then-attorney Mark Mahon once presented me with a Consent Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage and, in support of it, offered the testimony of two young women. One was his client, the wife, and the other was her residency witness. 

The wife was appropriately attired. The residency witness was, shall we say, not. I advised Mahon that I could receive the wife’s testimony but not that of the residency witness. Mahon explained that there were considerations outside the record which made it essential that the divorce occur that day. I offered alternate hearing time for later that day but the witnesses were not available at those times.

Mahon ruminated aloud, “So, judge, what we need is for the witness who is testifying to be appropriately attired.” I agreed with that unremarkable proposition. He thought a moment and then his face lit up. “Judge,” he said, happily. “My client and her residency witness are best friends. They are the same size.”

I immediately understood the solution he was offering. The future chief judge conferred briefly with both women and they left the room. When the residency witness re-entered, she was alone and attired in the wife’s demure garments. She left after her testimony and, a few minutes later, the wife re-entered the room, having resumed wearing her own clothes. She testified and was divorced that morning.

Circuit Judge Virginia Norton had completed the step-parent adoption of an adorable 4-year-old boy. He had been carefully dressed by his parents, was exquisitely well-mannered, and clearly was the veteran of many preschool birthday parties. Thus it was that, as he and his family were leaving chambers, he paused and returned to Norton. “Thank you for having us over,” he politely said.

The final moment of hilarity requires me to embarrass myself.  My order speaks for itself:  

“On the Court’s own motion, it is further ORDERED that the Court from the referenced order strikes a phrase in line 3 of the first paragraph, a phrase that resulted from an unfortunate but unobserved auto-correction.  

“The phrase ‘signed by the Fathead his counsel’ is stricken and replaced by the intended phrase ‘signed by the Father’s counsel.’  “The Court regrets, and apologizes to counsel for its failure to previously note the erroneous auto-correction.”

Shall I point out that “Father” and “Fathead” both start with F-A-T-H-E?  You are right: it’s a weak excuse.

I for years to come will be apologizing to the lawyer involved, who remarkably did not point out the error to me. I only found it when a new motion required me to review past orders. When the unintended insult jumped out at me, I didn’t know whether to be horrified or convulsed in laughter.

I also will share three moments of the awe-inspiring variety.

There was the American Inns of Court formal dinner in the magnificent Great Hall of the U.S. Supreme Court, where I, a young lawyer, was randomly assigned to sit at the same table as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, scholar and hero to so many of us.

At the time, I could not foresee the future global pandemic nor that in response to that pandemic I would one day wear a black mask adorned with Justice Ginsburg’s iconic white jabot and the words famously associated with her: “I dissent.”   

What I did learn in the Great Hall that evening was that justices deal with the same everyday challenges that we lawyers and ordinary judges face.

How, someone asked, did the justice manage to be appropriately attired for a black-tie event when she lived in Maryland and could not go home to change after a long day at the office? Her eminently sensible solution, which she readily shared: “I wear a black dress to court and then bring evening pumps, an evening bag, a change of earrings and an evening shawl.” Lightweight, easily packed, and capable of being discreetly carried. This brilliant jurist whose opinions changed the legal landscape still remembered how to be practical.

U.S. District Judge Brian Davis inspires awe. You cannot find a more principled person or one more committed to working for justice.

A gentle man, he nevertheless has a backbone of steel. When he was an assistant state attorney assigned to after-hours homicide duty, he received an emergency call asking for his help at the scene of a shooting.

The location was the original Hubbard House battered women’s shelter. A violent man had broken in and was rampaging through the house, looking for those who were trying to escape him. A quick-thinking receptionist called 911 and left the phone on the counter where the dispatcher could hear what was happening.

Police responded just as the armed man discovered his wife and children cowering in a closet. Having no choice, the officers shot and killed the intruder.

When Davis arrived on the scene, the man’s body had been removed, but the wife and children and other victims in the shelter were still terrified and traumatized by what they had witnessed.

Sensitive to their distress, Davis quietly requested towels and grimly mopped up the blood on the floor so that the deceased man’s children and wife would not have to continue to see it.  Compassion personified.

A proud Jacksonville law firm once realized that it had committed malpractice. It did not rush to settle the case and bury the evidence of its mistakes.

Instead, uncertain if the client understood the issue, the firm’s partners asked to meet with him. They advised him that he had a legal malpractice claim against the firm and then they provided him the names of several lawyers who handled such cases.

The actions of the firm epitomized professionalism and unswerving ethical principles. Doing the right thing is easy when your action does not produce adverse consequences, much more difficult when it does.

One cannot retire from the law without recalling countless moments experienced or observed: Some courageous and noble, some wise, some tragic, some frustrating, and some simply affording needed comic relief.

Each lawyer’s or judge’s moments are unique. Treasure yours.

Cole was appointed to this position in 1994 to replace Dorothy Pate. Cole won election in 2018 and her current term ends Jan. 7, 2025.

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