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All lawyers in this country are at least trilingual: They speak American, Legalese, and Code. American they learn in grades K-12, in classes inexplicably captioned “English.” Legalese they learn in law school from form books and statutes. Code they pick up over years of practice. The last is the toughest. While Legalese is taxing — let’s face it, phrases like “riparian proprietor” and “loss of consortium” are not gonna be part of your general vocabulary; you have to sit down and learn them — Code is much tougher because it takes time and exposure. You can’t sit down with a book of forensic terminology and learn it. You have to hang around lawyers for long periods of time — not entirely a bad deal, but time-consuming and hard to explain to your mother. I remember my third month of practice. I was a rookie DA, handling a misdemeanor calendar,[ 1] and an attorney told me he needed a continuance because he hadn’t yet located a key witness, “Mr. Green.” Had he not simultaneously gestured by rubbing his thumb across his first two fingers in a gesture universally understood to refer to money, I probably would not have understood that he did not want to try the case until he was paid.[ 2] Code takes time. Now, after 33 years of practice, I’ve learned most of it. I now know that when a criminal defense attorney says his case involves the “Doctrine of Relative Filth,” he means his defense is going to be that the victim is even more unsavory than his client. It means his client the dope-dealer murdered a child molester, and his approach to the jury is going to be the subliminal equivalent of, “Yeah, but he really needed killing; think of it as a public service and give my guy a lesser-included.” I know when the deputy public defender says she’s going to be tied up the next morning “visiting shut-ins,” it means she’ll be at the jail interviewing her in-custody clients. And when one of my friends in the civil bar says he has to “take his dog to the vet,” it means he’s meeting with an expert witness he hopes will have a way to improve his bad case. Sometimes Code can be almost impenetrable. If the Navajo code-talkers hadn’t worked out in World War II, I think the Allies might well have turned to lawyers. And if you don’t believe me, read some of the judicial “profiles” the legal newspapers run on judges. I think these represent our profession at its euphemistic best. You’re familiar with these. A reporter interviews the judge, a photographer takes the judge’s picture, and a half-dozen lawyers squirrel around like mercury in a skillet trying to say something nice. I always feel bad for the lawyers who are contacted, but I must say, it’s entertaining as all get out. In virtually every instance, some poor lawyer has been cornered in his office or on her cell phone and asked to comment on the merits of good old Judge Shlabotnick for the benefit of readers of The Recorder or … there’s another one, isn’t there? Another legal newspaper? I think they all do this. Anyway, I’m sure some of these lawyers invoke the Fifth Amendment or mumble that the reception is breaking up and then throw the cell into the lake. But some, trapped by circumstance or character, try to answer. And I’m glad they do, because I think their attempts to stay on the good side of Judge Shlabotnick[ 3], without entirely losing credibility amongst their fellow attorneys, represent Code-talking at its very best. Over the years, I’ve developed my own glossary of these terms, which I offer here for the benefit of younger practitioners and lawyers tired of buying new cell phones to replace the ones in the lake. In each case I’ve juxtaposed what they told the reporter with what they were really thinking. Use these translations the next time you read a judicial profile and see if it doesn’t make the experience more enjoyable. “He’s fair.” Not to be confused with “good” or “excellent.” “She can make a decision.” Correct decisions are beyond her, but decisions she can handle. “He’s innovative.” Where does he get these ideas?! I think he must have gotten some bad acid in the ’60s. “She has a good sense of humor.” It is humor, isn’t it? She can’t be serious about these rulings. “He values punctuality.” If he could read law as well as he tells time, we’d all be better off. “He’s not easily swayed.” Swayed? He can’t be budged. He’s so dense light bends around him. “He has good judgment.” He agrees with me. “He’s a little erratic.” He doesn’t always agree with me. “He’s very receptive to new ideas.” Crazy as a loon. I sold this guy a cockamamie argument I wouldn’t have tried to get past my tailor. What a dingbat. “She’s well-organized.” An anal-retentive pain in the … neck. “She can be tough.” Cantankerous old viper. Toughest decision she has to make all day is who to bite next. “He gets right to the heart of the case.” Then rips it out with some screwball ruling and leaves you hemorrhaging at the counsel table. Jack the Ripper in a black robe is what he is. “He expects you to be prepared.” Mainly because he isn’t. This clown couldn’t find his own chambers without a map and a guide. If you aren’t prepared to take him by the hand and lead him from Point A to Point B, he won’t get there. “He’s not a rubber stamp.” Hasn’t agreed with a government lawyer since the Eisenhower administration. “He’s flexible.” Spineless jellyfish; hasn’t made a tough call in 10 years on the bench. “He’s not an activist judge.” Activist!? Try active! We can’t even keep the son of a gun awake. He’s about as active as a lunar volcano. “She’s compassionate.” She won’t be invited to the DA’s Christmas party. You say your client’s a serial killer and you’re hoping for probation with anger management classes? This is your judge. “She’s not afraid to admit she doesn’t know something.” Probably because she gets so much practice. “He knows the law.” Unfortunately, “the law” he knows is the law of averages. He’s just flipping a coin up there. “He’s a little formal.” A little!? You need to leave the courtroom to blink. This guy misunderstood when the governor called and thought he’d been “anointed.” We’re lucky he doesn’t make us genuflect when we pass in front of him. “She’s very experienced.” She’s been making the same mistakes for 20 years. “She just needs a little experience.” In 20 years she’ll still be terrible. “He’s an independent thinker.” Talk about a loose cannon! This guy must be reading the Napoleonic Code in chambers. We never know what he’s liable to do. “She’s very careful.” Careful? She’s paralyzed is what she is. I’ve never seen anybody so slow. It takes her an hour-and-a-half to watch “Sixty Minutes.” Give us a break, lady, make a decision! Any decision! Come on, while we’re young! “He’s a big picture guy.” Thinks he’s William O. Douglas, but the truth is he doesn’t know the Civil Code from the Morse Code. Doesn’t even try to read the law any more. Just decides who the good guy is and rules accordingly. “He’s a great settlement judge.” I wouldn’t try a case in front of this guy if my client was Jesus and I had a jury of nuns. You get sent to him, you settle. Period. “He’s a great trial judge.” I guess if all we let him do is sit up there and yell “safe or “out” every now and again, he can’t screw things up too badly. “She likes you to know who’s in charge.” Certainly somebody in the courtroom ought to know. “He’s a true gentleman.” I can’t think of a single thing this guy has ever done to convince me he wasn’t in a coma all three years of law school, but he’s such a nice guy, and the rest of them are such churlish louts that I just can’t bring myself to say anything bad about him. “She’s a joy to appear before.” The gender-neutral equivalent of “a true gentleman.” “He’s a judge’s judge.” Nobody knows what this one means — including me — but it has a nice ring to it, so it gets said a lot. “He would make a great appellate court jurist.” Please, somebody, get him out of my courtroom. Put him someplace where I’ll be able to read his goofy rulings ahead of time and prepare for them instead of getting blind-sided every time I go in. “I love his column.” He’s a sui generis nut case. Maybe if I talk about the column nobody’ll notice I’m dodging the “How good a judge is he?” question. Maybe. Read more columns like this in “A Criminal Waste of Time,” a book from The Recorder featuring more than 30 of the best columns from award-winning contributor William W. Bedsworth. Order by calling (800) 587-9288 or visiting www.lawcatalog.com/bedsworth.
[ 1] Near as I can figure, they threw you into a calendar court early so you could make 100 mistakes a day instead of just 10 or 12, thereby getting them out of your system sooner. [ 2] Also known in our county as a “Rule 1″ continuance, in reference to the First Rule of Criminal Practice: Get the fee up front. (Criminal lawyers who do not collect for their services prior to delivery often do not collect for their services — also phrased as, “If he had money for lawyers, he wouldn’t be holding up liquor stores.” [ 3] Is “the good side of the judge” an oxymoron?

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