I love songs sung by (and one about) James Taylor. Two songs in particular come to mind. The first is “Up on the roof.” Part of the lyric forms the title of this post. The second is a song sung by Carly Simon supposedly about Taylor. The lyric includes the famous line, “You’re so vain you probably think this song is about you.” When I first heard it, I thought Ms. Simon was singing about me. But that’s a slightly different story. Never fear, I will weave that story into this one in a minute.
Anyway, when I am feeling down up on the top floor of the pretty nice federal building I hang out in, I think of my brothers and sisters on the state bench. In particular, my thoughts turn to the west.
In 1974, I began practicing law in Dawson County, Nebraska, and the huge expanse of sod that is central and western Nebraska. With a total population of 15,000 in the entire county, there were far more cattle than people.
I had just completed two years as a law clerk to a federal appellate judge. I thought I was quite something. I was absolutely certain that I would take the yokel prairie barristers and their broken down old judges to school. Now, watch and listen to the YouTube video of Carly Simon singing “You’re so vain.”
Back to the story. When I was introduced to one of the circuit riding judges who came down from North Platte to handle a docket call one Friday, my mentor at the firm introduced me as coming from the federal courts. I was wearing my pin-stripped wool suit with a vest. As they say, I was dressed to impress.
Following the introduction about my federal connections, the judge, who later became a dear friend, grinned and then barked, “You won’t like it here.” With that, he slapped me on the shoulder of my wool suit, and took the bench.
The judge was deliciously wry but decidedly wrong. Over the next 13 years, I came to love going to court in all manner of small venues. (I declare under penalty of perjury that the first time I pulled off the gravel to park at the courthouse in Stockville, the county seat of Frontier County with a population of 25, a horse was tethered to a post out front. I am not joking.) During those years, I had the privilege of observing first-rate trial judges practice their craft. Indeed, I learned much of what I know about being a judge from those fine judges.*
One of my former law partners, Jim Doyle is now a circuit riding judge out there where Central Time fades into Mountain Time. Jim is a wonderful man, and one of the most ethical, toughest and best lawyers I have ever known. Devoted to his community, his family and his church, Jim has been recognized by the Nebraska Supreme Court as one of the State’s finest trial judges. He does his work day in and day out without any help from law clerks or courtroom deputies. That is, he works the high wire alone and without a net. He does not bitch.
We, who ascend the federal trial bench both literally and figuratively, would do well to remember how good we have it. By comparison to the state bench, our jobs are cushy beyond belief.
“When this old world starts getting me down,” I turn on Baby James. And I am thankful.
*I also saw, and marveled at, a bunch of hellishly good trial lawyers.