Pattis-Norm
Norm Pattis ()

I saw U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Meyer on the bench in Bridgeport the other day, and my heart was filled with sorrow. Oh, he looked happy enough, all right, sitting atop justice’s pyramid, parsing the arguments of the litigants who appeared before him. He’s a brand-spanking-new federal judge who already looks as though he has been presiding forever over other people’s troubles.

He will be a great judge.

But I missed him suddenly. He is beyond reach. He’s crossed over the great divide separating practicing lawyers from judges. Whereas once I felt comfortable exchanging pleasantries with him, I am now aware of a certain distance. I am an officer in the court over which he presides. Formalities must be observed, the appearance of impropriety avoided.

I felt that same way when Dawne Westbrook, a former colleague, took the state bench. The robe intimidates. Can a lawyer ever befriend a judge?

I pride myself on my irreverence, so this instinctive deference surprises me. Judges don’t exactly do justice, they decide cases according to the law as best they understand the law. It is a human calling, susceptible to all-too-human failings. Judges are necessary in a world of conflict, just as custodial workers in an untidy world.

I looked at Meyer, the creases in his new robe still crisp.

What would it be like to know that for the rest of your life, or until the collapse of the republic, whichever comes first, you had an income, a place, a settled role? All at once, release from the pressures of satisfying clients, colleagues, employees and creditors looked attractive.

But would I really want to live in such a gilded cage? Can anyone really be satisfied locked in the display case in open court? I imagined the fellowship of fellow captives, and thought how dismal it might be—the same colleagues, year after year, decade after decade, all speaking in the hushed and coded language designed to convince others, and, perhaps themselves, that they are doing justice.

I left Meyer’s courtroom and headed into federal Judge Stefan Underhill’s for argument in a civil rights case. Underhill has a quirky practice at the close of each day’s proceeding; he leaves the bench and comes into the well of the court to shake hands with participants. “I haven’t seen you here in a while,” he said, as we greeted one another.

“With rulings like the one you just made, is it any wonder?” I said, as playfully as a disappointed lawyer can. He smiled in his modest sort of way, a man of overwhelming decency.

From there, I tumbled into the courtroom of U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly Fitzsimmons for a difficult hearing. As always, she was gracious, careful and fair. I did not like all that I heard in her courtroom that day, but something about her demeanor set a standard for the rest of us.

I hadn’t had a good day in court, not by far. I was discouraged when I drove home, but the sight of the three judges doing their work with such civility and dignity lingered. If I was feeling uncivil and undignified at day’s end, so much the worse for me. I am less sorrowful looking back on the day now. We’ve some good judges in Connecticut. We’re lucky that way. I guess they’re lucky, too. •