Friday, June 1, 2012

Chapters 24, 25, and 26; A New Director

(Haven't read the previous chapters?  Start  here.)
(Haven't read chapters 6 and 7?  Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapter 8? Find it here.)
(Haven't read chapter 9?  Find it here.)
(Haven't read chapters 10 and 11? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 12 through 14? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 15 through 16? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 17 through 19? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 20 and 21? Find them here.)
(Haven't read chapters 22 and 23? Find them here.)


            The county commissioners appointed a lawyer in private practice to be our new director.  This lawyer, Gordon Elliott, was a polite, unassuming man.  I saw him frequently around the courthouse complex; he said “aw shucks” and apologized often.  José thought he was obsequious rather than polite.  He was short, about five feet five, and had a large belly that hung over his pants.  Not a man to take risks, he wore both a belt and suspenders.  Gordon, I was told, was well respected as a lawyer, although I had never heard of him actually winning a trial.  It was rumored that his true desire was to become a superior court judge.
Other than the casual greeting, I had only had one real interaction with Gordon.  This contact had happened a couple of months ago, after a case-management hearing in Judge Baker’s courtroom.  Judge Baker was primarily a family-law judge, but she occasionally filled in on criminal matters.  She was usually friendly, but emotional, and prone to histrionics.
Superior Court held case-management hearings Wednesdays and Thursdays at 11:00.  These hearings were remarkably meaningless—the lawyers could report whether they thought a case was going to trial or whether a plea date had been set.  I had a guilty plea scheduled with Judge Stewart at the same time as a case-management hearing in Judge Baker’s court.  I had arranged for José to cover my case-management hearing, to report to Judge Baker that my case (a drug possession charge with Penny Pickens) would be going to trial as scheduled in three weeks.  It was a common practice to have another lawyer cover a case-management hearing if the assigned lawyer had a conflicting court appearance.
After my guilty plea, I returned to my office around noon to find a note from José.  “Judge Baker wants to see you about the case management matter at 12:30.  Sorry.”  So much for lunch, I thought, and bought a bag of Cheetoes and a Diet Pepsi, my regular standby lunch.  With orange fingers, I reported to Judge Baker’s courtroom as directed.
Penny sat rigidly at the counsel table.  She appeared to be in a snit, but, then, she always appeared to be in a snit.  Once the judge came out to the bench, Penny announced the case formally, even though there was no record of these hearings.
Judge Baker asked, “Ms. Hamilton, what is the status of this case?”
“We have not been able to settle this case,” I answered, “and plan to go to trial as scheduled three weeks from now.”  These were the exact words I had written on my note to José.
“Ms. Pickens?”
“Well!  Since I have extended an offer that Ms. Hamilton has chosen not to accept, I suppose we will have to proceed to trial as scheduled!”
“Ms. Hamilton?”
“That’s fine, your honor.”
“Thank you, counsel.  The matter will proceed to trial as scheduled three weeks from Monday.”  I walked over to Penny’s table and signed the paperwork confirming the trial date, happily leaving orange Cheeto smears all over the document.
I turned to leave, thinking what a colossal waste of time and lunch the hearing had been, when the judge cleared her throat.  “One more thing Ms. Hamilton,” she said.  I turned back.  Penny had a snotty smile on her face.  “I expect you to attend these case-management hearings so that I do not have to specially set aside time over the lunch hour at great inconvenience to myself and Ms. Pickens.”
A sarcastic answer almost bubbled out of my mouth, something like, “I will endeavor to bring my human cloning machine with me to court next time.”  Instead, I opted for polite defiance.  “Well, Judge,” I said slowly, “I had a guilty plea scheduled at the same time in another courtroom, and I had arranged for Mr. Rivera to cover for me in this courtroom.  What more would the court have me do?”
“Ms. Hamilton!” the judge exclaimed in a high-pitched voice.  “I don’t like your tone!”  She banged her gavel, stood up, and marched out of the courtroom.  I was stunned.  Sure, I was talking back a bit, but it was ridiculous to give me a hard time for an inability to be two places at once.  Besides, my tone had been fine; it was my words that she didn’t like.
            I was thinking about how ridiculous the judge’s tantrum had been, when I saw Gordon Elliott sitting in the back of the courtroom.  He stood as I approached; I was thinking he was going to say something like, “Unbelievable!  What is her problem?  It’s not like you forgot to arrange coverage (which lawyers did all the time).”  Instead, he said, “You’d better go apologize to her.  You shouldn’t have talked to her like that.”
“What?  Um, well, she was kind of out of line.”
“You can’t upset a judge like that.  I’d go and apologize if I were you.”
I said something like, “Uh, I don’t think so,” and left the courtroom.  I thought that it was odd that he had misjudged the situation.  I tried not to talk back to judges, but sometimes you just had to stand up for yourself.  Surely, Gordon Elliott knew that.

            When Gordon took over as director of the office, I was apprehensive, but still hopeful.  One of his first actions was to call an office-wide meeting.  We had never had an office-wide meeting, as far as I knew.
            “People,” he said calling the meeting to order.  “I assume all of you know, but my name is Gordon Elliott, and I am your new leader.”  He said this dramatically, as if he were a world leader, rather than the head of our rag-tag group.  José crossed his arms.  “I am here to be your leader, but also to be an inspiration for you all, I hope, to strive to be better.  What do I mean by ‘strive to be better?’  I mean that we can all do better, be better.”
            What had happened to the unassuming lawyer we knew from around the courthouse? I wondered.
“This does not look good,” José said, shaking his head.
            “We should at least give him a chance,” Matthew said.  Matthew always wanted to give people a chance.
            “For example, I’ve noticed that a number of you are slovenly in your appearance.”  José looked down at the battered leather sandals he wore sockless with his wrinkled khakis.  I stared at our new leader, incredulous.
            “This office does not have a good reputation with the downtown law firms.  We can make it better.  I can help you make it better.  First, if you want to be perceived as professionals, you must dress as professionals.  Therefore, as your leader, I am tightening up the dress code.  Suits for the men, with ties every day and every minute you are in the office.  And preferably skirts for the women.  Now, I can’t legally require skirts, but this is a conservative town, and we want to send out a conservative message.
“I’d also like to introduce you all to Marsha Rimski, who I have selected as our new office manager.”  He gestured to a thin, officious woman with stiff, dark brown hair.  “Mrs. Rimski is an efficiency expert and will be charged with promoting professionalism within our firm.”
Firm?  I had never heard anyone refer to our office as a “firm.”
“Mrs. Rimski will be making some changes to maximize our professionalism.  Please comply with her dictates.”
Dictates?  We had never had “dictates.”
“In closing, you all—we all—obviously have a long way to go.  But now that I am here, we can begin to make progress—soon, the public defenders’ office will be the best law firm in Athens.”
            By the time he finished his little pep talk, he was facing a room full of public defenders with their arms crossed and mouths open in disbelief.
            We walked back to the office with our heads down.  “I think he wants us to be prosecutors,” Janice said, pulling on her cigarette.
            “If he keeps it up with the dress-for-success crap,” José said, “I’m going to start showing up for work without pants.”
            “That’ll teach him to tell you to wear socks,” I said.
            “He thinks we have a bad reputation because we aren’t dressing right.  We have a bad reputation because people don’t understand what we do,” José said.
            “And never will,” I said, taking a drag off of Janice’s cigarette.
            “He just doesn’t get it,” José said.  “A lawyer who represents poor people charged with crimes will never be popular or the head of the civic club.  I can deal with the public’s lack of respect for what we do, but now he wants to take away our freedom, too.”  José was trying to get wound up for one of his rants, but the energy just wasn’t there.

            I cursed our misfortune as I walked to my car, which I had parked in one of the metered spaces on the street.  When I reached it, I saw a parking ticket on the windshield.  Dammit, I thought.  I bet no one would prosecute me if I killed one of those meter maids.
            When I looked at the ticket more closely, I realized the license plate number written on the ticket didn’t belong to my car.  I checked a few of the cars parked on the street.  Doug’s car.  Apparently he thought he could trick me into paying his ticket by putting it on my car.  I shook my head and smiled.  When it came to practical jokes, he was clearly an amateur.  The thought of my revenge made me at least momentarily happy.

A few days later, Doug called me.
            “Why did I just get a call from the city clerk?”
            “I really can’t imagine.”
            “The clerk said the city had just received one of my parking tickets.”
            “I hope you sent it in on time.”
            “Kate, the city clerk’s office received my ticket, which had been cut up into tiny pieces with an attached note that read, ‘This is what I think of your stinking parking ticket.’  Signed Douglas Catheter Vaughn.”
            “Oh, you shouldn’t have done that.”
            “I didn’t do that.”
            “But your name’s on it.”
            “My middle name is Cathcart.”
            “Well, still.”
            “Why would I misspell my own name?”
            “It’s O.K., Cathcart, everyone makes mistakes.”
“It’s my mother’s maiden name.”
 “You know, I can’t really blame you.  I hate those parking guys too.”
On my way from the courthouse to my office, still giggling at the thought of the city clerk’s face as pieces of shredded parking ticket fell on her lap, I decided to stop at the new espresso stand parked outside the courthouse.  I still had not mastered the latte lingo, but I needed caffeine badly enough to give it a try.
“What can I get for you?”  The latte guy was tall and built and probably all of 18 years old.  The sign said my barista’s name was Tom.
I scanned the long list of options.  “How about, um, an Americano?  Is that good?”
“Sure, I like a girl who takes her coffee without milk.  You must be tough.”
I smiled at him.  Flirtation and coffee.  I would definitely be coming back.
“What size would you like?” he asked.
I looked back at the sign, determined to appear tough and non-amateurish.  My eyes darted around the complicated sign.  “Let’s see—I think I’ll have the, um …”  Why couldn’t they just have small, medium, and large?  I saw some numbers in the bottom corner.  “I’ll have, um, the, um—the sixteen inches.”
            I held out a five dollar bill.
“Wow,” he said.  “You really must be tough.  Either that, or you meant ounces.”
            “Yes, ounces.  And give me 16.”
            He touched my hand as he took the bill.  “We’ll save the other for later.”


After work I joined Janice, José, and Matthew at our usual table at Moezy’s.  I ordered a whisky.
“What’s with the whisky, Kate?”  Matthew asked.
“I’m feeling a little frustrated.  I think I need to start dating,” I announced.
“Aren’t you kind of old to be a virgin?” José said.
“Why now?” Janice asked.
“I think I just made an accidental pass at the latte guy.”
“It’s a long story.”  I cringed at the word “long.”
“Isn’t he a little young?” Janice said.
“I didn’t plan it, OK?  I’m just thinking that maybe it’s time for a boyfriend.”
“What do you need a boyfriend for?”
“Someone to bring me flowers and sleep with me.”
“Matthew and I can do that,” Jose said.  “Matthew, you can take care of the flowers …”
Pam had been refilling our beers.  “I know a guy,” she said.  “I can set you up.”
“A blind date?”
“He’s in his late 30s, so a little older than you.  He owns his own construction company, and he likes to have fun.”
“Construction company?” Jose said.  “That’s totally hot.  Does he have a tool belt?”
“Shut up, José.”  I took my fresh beer from Pam.  “It would be good to see someone who’s not a lawyer.”
“I’ll set it up, Kate.  You won’t be sorry.  He’s a great guy.”
“I’ll think about it.”
I cleared my throat; they weren’t going to like what I had to say next.  “I invited Gordon over,” I said, like this was a totally normal thing to do.
            “You did what?” Janice demanded.
            “I was thinking that things have kind of gotten off on the wrong foot, so I thought maybe if we all had a drink, we could talk, and …”
            “Kate, he doesn’t drink.” José said.
            “Doesn’t drink?  I repeated.  “But isn’t he a public defender?”
            “Not really,” Janice muttered.
            “He doesn’t like other people who drink, either,” José added.
            “How do you know all this, anyway?” I asked.
            “After the meeting the other day, I ran into Phil Newman and asked him about Gordon.”
“Who’s Phil Newman?”
“Just the best criminal lawyer in town, probably in the whole state.  He’s brilliant and hilarious.  Anyway, I asked Phil about Gordon.  He said, ‘I’ve never seen a case that  Gordon Elliott couldn’t fuck up.’”
“Maybe he can still be a good boss?”
“That’s what I said to Phil.  He just shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Maybe I’m wrong, but Gordon’s very insecure.  Judges and prosecutors like him because he’s an ass kisser,’” José said.  “Phil said that Gordon really wants to be a judge, and probably sees the public defender position as a stepping stone to a judgeship.”
            I saw Gordon coming through the swinging doors.
            “Quick,” I said, grabbing coffee mugs from the nearby wait station.  I handed them out and we poured our drinks into the mugs.
            When he reached our table, I smiled and asked, “Coffee, Gordon?”
            “Thank you, Kate, but I try to avoid caffeine products.”
But not excessive amounts of food, I thought, eyeing his stomach, which strained against the restraint of his belt and suspenders.
“Janice, isn’t it?” he said.  “Would you mind not smoking?  I have allergies …”
            Janice looked at him for a second, and then put her cigarette out.  I don’t think she had ever been in a bar without a lit cigarette in her hand.
            “So, Gordon, we were just hoping to get to know you a little better,” I said, playing the hostess as he took a seat across from me.
            “Well, by way of background, I am a 1975 graduate.  I worked in the prosecutor’s office from 1975-1985.  Since then I have been in private practice.  I am married to a beautiful, brilliant woman and I have three beautiful children.”
            “I didn’t know you were married,” I said, conversationally.  “What does your wife do?”
            “She raises brilliant children,” he said.
I wanted to ask what would become of the brilliant girls raised by the dutiful women.  But I knew the answer:  The girls would go on to raise more brilliant children.  “What is your vision for the office?”  I asked instead; I thought I should give him one more soft-ball question.
            “The public defenders’ office must become more courteous and professional.  There should be no difference between our office and downtown lawyers.  We should strive to have the judges and prosecutors admire and respect us, rather than treat us with hostility and disdain.”
            “But don’t you think good public defenders sometimes make judges and prosecutors angry when they stand up for their client’s rights?”  José said, pointing out the painfully obvious.
            “A good trial lawyer possesses a careful combination of traits.  He is intelligent, persistent, persuasive, and, where needed, aggressive.  I have often wondered if a woman can be aggressive enough to be a good criminal trial lawyer.  On the other hand, women are more intuitive, and this probably balances out their lack of aggression.”
I almost bit through my coffee-whisky mug.  Did he really just say that?  I waited for someone else to say something, but no one did.  I looked at Janice, who looked back at me, but said nothing.  The moment passed without either of us saying anything as we stared at him helplessly.  Maybe we weren’t aggressive enough after all.
“I think I need to go to the bathroom—would you excuse me?” I said, quickly escaping the awkward silence at the table.  Once in the stall, I slid the door’s lock shut and sat on the toilet without pulling up my skirt.  I didn’t really need to go, I just needed to think.  What could I possibly say to Gordon?  I couldn’t figure him out.  It was easy to discern most people’s basic motives, but I couldn’t grasp his.  Surely he didn’t want to make us all miserable.  Maybe if I could understand him better, I could reason with him.  I flushed the toilet on auto pilot and checked my lipstick in the shiny condom dispenser.  The woman reflected between French ticklers and ribbed-for-her-pleasure looked worried.


            While nothing changed on the surface at work—except José started wearing a tie and socks every day—the mood in the office shifted.  José hated giving in, but then decided that socks and ties weren’t worth getting fired over.  Before it felt like we were a band of underground resistance fighters; now we felt, I don’t know—lost, rudderless.  Despite feeling adrift, however, we still had our work and our clients.  José, Matthew, and I spent most of our days in court, anyway.  I sometimes read police reports in the courthouse cafeteria, not liking the change in the air at the office.
A few weeks after our meeting at Moezy’s, Gordon called me into his office.  I was a little apprehensive, having tried to avoid him and focus on my work, but I wasn’t too worried.  He probably just wanted to know how things were going in felonies.  I was thankful that I had worn a skirt that day.
“I have been getting complaints from some of the prosecutors about you,” he said in a surprisingly angry tone once his office door was closed.
“Yes,” I said proudly, remembering Ed’s congratulation speech.
            “We can’t have that.”
            “Can’t have what?” I asked, confused.
For heaven’s sake, I thought.  “What are they complaining about now?”
            “Penny Pickens called and said that you have a client in jail who could plead guilty and get out of jail, but you haven’t pled him yet.”
            Of course.  Penny and I were in a minor battle over a client in jail charged with drug possession.  I wanted her to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor, since the client didn’t have any previous felonies.  She wanted him to plead guilty as charged.  She had some leverage, though, because he could plead guilty to the felony any day, and be released from jail, while his trial date was two weeks away.  I had convinced the client to wait for his trial, because prosecutors would often reduce the charge at the last minute, not wanting to bother with the trouble of a trial.
            “That’s because I talked to my guy, and he wants a trial.  It’s just in two weeks, anyway.”
            “Well, Ms. Pickens is upset.”
            “So?  She’s a complete harpy.”
            “Please don’t use that language, Kate.  I expect you to apologize to Ms. Pickens immediately.  Report back to me when you have made the apology.”
            I left Gordon’s office, my polite smile frozen.  Why was he getting involved in this?  Ed would have laughed in Penny’s face if she complained to him that I wasn’t pleading someone guilty fast enough.
            A couple of days later, I passed Gordon in the hallway.  “Did you and Penny Pickens make up?” he asked.
            “Not really.”  The case was still set for trial.
            “Did you apologize to her?”
            “You were serious about that?”
            “Miss Hamilton, I direct you to apologize to Ms. Pickens immediately.”
            I stared after him as he walked off.  I would swallow my tongue before I apologized to Penny for doing my job.
            I tried to hide from Gordon, but I ran into him in the lunch room the next day.  “Did you apologize to Ms. Pickens?” he asked.
            “Actually, no.”
            “Miss Hamilton, I gave you a direct order, and you have now disobeyed it.  What is the explanation?”
            I tried to appear disarming.  “I’m just not very good at direct orders…You see at one time in my life I considered joining the military,” I invented, “but I thought, Kate, you are not very good at direct orders, so I didn’t join.”  I was hoping I could babble my way out of this.  “Instead, I went to law school and became a public defender.  So the very reason I am here is because I’m bad at direct orders.”
            “This is a warning, Kate Hamilton.  Disobey me again, and you will not have a job.”
            I turned to leave without comment, my brain trying to process what was happening.
            “Oh, and one more thing, Kate.  Mrs. Rimski says your office is a mess.  Have it clean before you leave today.”

Want to read more?  Find the next chapters, 27-29, Nurses, Clowns, and Incense, here.

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