Labor Day musings with a video and photos

Aside from the not so subtle strain of narcissism that runs throughout, one of the reasons for writing this blog (at least from that part of my brain that Freud* called the super ego) is to demonstrate that most federal trial judges are quite ordinary people. Most of us do not deserve veneration. Most of us got our positions like the poor sap struck by lightning. We have a few strengths, but many more foibles. Relevant to this post, we have families (both close and extended) and we are tasked with lugging every piece of the baggage that goes with them–just like everyone else.

I think about my brother. He worked all his life as a railroad engineer until they found the massive small cell carcinoma in his lung. All the studies said he would die from that horrible disease and very soon. His union, for which my brother had devoted much of  his free time, sent out the big guns on Labor Day following the diagnosis so that brother could be honored in one last Labor Day parade. They let him drive a big fancy convertible with his name stenciled on the side while the officials sat in the back smoking cigarettes oblivious to the irony. Against all odds, and with the help of Cleveland Clinic and others, the brother did not die but lives still, proving, I suppose, that second-hand smoke in Cadillac convertibles is no problem.

I think about my sisters. I am in awe of the one who adopted the two special needs children born to a schizophrenic prostitute from a part of Cleveland that is a hell hole. I think of the troubles she and her wonderful husband suffered through raising a stunningly beautiful but emotionally labile mulatto girl and another tiny little girl-child with a genetic growth disease, autism and severe mental illness.

I think about the sister who was born when I was 16 while my mother began working hard on her firm commitment to alcoholism. I remember that little girl running about the funeral of our mother with her “Mary Janes” and the anger I felt for a mother who would bring a child into the world with all the horrific hallmarks of fetal alcohol syndrome. I am amazed that this open and tender little girl succeeded against all odds and I am ashamed that I did nothing to help her.

I think about my own children and their children. The video from Petra that we got last night (thanking Joan for sending Petra a video of a Labor Day party with Joan’s fantastically talented family) reminds me that love for a child of a child cannot be adequately described in words. I laugh out loud at Petra’s reference to “stinky feet Grampa.”

I think about my law clerks, my affection sometimes bordering on love for them and how they have become part of my extended family. I think about Mary, the first law clerk that I hired and the e-mail I got from her today, reminding me of the past and sending photos that force me to do so. I am catapulted back to 1988 when Mary began adopting children from Korea. I think about holding the naturalization ceremony for one of them. I think about our daughter Lisa spending summers as the children’s day-time caregiver while Mary worked for me and her husband flew across the country to get a Master’s degree from prestigious Middlebury College. Twenty five years later, I look at the photos of those years, and I think about time and the wisdom of Loren Eiseley.

Mary, the first law clerk I hired, with her son at the naturalization ceremony I was honored to conduct.

Mary, the first law clerk I hired, with her son at the naturalization ceremony I was honored to conduct.

Lisa at about 15 with one of Mary's children at a park in Omaha

Lisa, our middle daughter, at about 15 with one of Mary’s children at a park in Omaha

On Labor Day 2013, that’s what one federal trial judge thought about. They are not grand thoughts, nor are they even significant, but they are real.


*Freud plays a big part in a post that will appear soon. I suppose that is why he is on my mind.

17 responses

  1. One of the many great things about being lucky enough to clerk for a federal judge is that it’s sort of like acquiring an extra parent, at a time in your life when you’re actually grateful for your parents (kids who grow up to be federal law clerks generally have reason to be grateful for their parents), as opposed to being 16 and wishing they’d just leave you alone. One of my favorite stories about Justice (then Judge) Kennedy was that my wife and I somehow got mixed up about who was supposed to have our oldest son in the great runaround that was then our lives. I was clerking; she was a 3rd year law student who was Senior Notes editor on the U.C. Davis Law Review. Anyway, I had to get somewhere in the afternoon (dentist or something). Adam was in 1st grade or something and my wife had gotten him from school and dropped him off at chambers. I was very close friends by now with my two co-clerks. I had asked Josh (one of my co-clerks) to watch Adam for about 30 minutes and then drop him off at our house, where Judy would be waiting, because she’d be home by then. Anyway, either I wasn’t clear or Josh misheard, but he thought that Judy would pick him up at chambers. Josh was single and had a date (priorities). So he asked the Judge to keep an eye on Adam and Judy would be coming to get him in a few minutes (which is what Josh honestly thought). Mark (the other clerk) had left. So I got home and Judy got home at about the same time. Holy sh*t, where’s Adam? (This was before cellphones.) So I called the chambers and the Judge picked up. “Uh Judge, is Adam there?” “Oh yes, he’s here — we’re having a fine time.” So I go tearing back down to chambers, and there is Judge Kennedy and Adam playing checkers with an old set that the Judge kept around from when his kids were little. I apologized profusely. The Judge waved me off. I waited 5 minutes while they finished the game. The Judge let Adam win.

  2. I totally “get” Patrick Borchers’ story. Once I took my young daughter in to visit the chambers, and Judge Kopf amazed her by copying her hand on the copy machine. I think it was clear who enjoyed the visit more.

    I also relate to Patrick Borchers’ broader message. Judge Kopf saw me through two crazy years of adopting two kids internationally and the major surgery of one child that immediately followed the adoption of the other, and the times I had to play single parent while my husband was off at grad school. He did all this with the utmost patience at a time when we were incredibly busy. And I add that as a magistrate judge then he was only entitled to one law clerk. In those days there was no such thing as using sick time for adoption purposes or a family member’s surgery, but he just made it work for both of us without adding stress to my life. And I also have quite a story of how he lifted the spirits of my husband and me when our first adoption became hopelessly delayed due to the Seoul Olympics. Judge Kopf did all this years before people started talking about “family friendliness” in the workplace. I like to think I rewarded him with loyalty and hard work. My family and I will always be grateful.

  3. Pat,

    Thanks very much for the funny and wonderful story. I can’t be mad at the Justice anymore for seeming to kick me around in the first PB abortion decision. Hearing the story of the Justice and your son and the checkerboard makes plain to me that I ought to preach less and believe more. All the best.


  4. Mary, you are too kind even for a law clerk who is taught by tradition and practice to be slavish to the clerk’s judge!

    Say, I once sat each of my kids on a big old Xerox and copied their butts (with their clothes on, of course). They thought that was the funniest thing ever, but their mother absolutely forbade them from taking the “child porn” to school. For years afterwards, they would beg to go the law office to copy their butts. Such was about the only entertainment one could find in a town of 6,000 out there were Central Time hurdles head long into Mountain Time.

    All the best.


  5. Rich, believing to the core of my being that Roe v. Wade was terribly misguided (a subject on which many people disagree and on which I expect no comment) the story helps me not get as mad at him as I would be otherwise for having signed onto the joint opinion in Casey v. Planned Parenthood. I believe that he felt double-crossed in the first partial-birth abortion case, and took out his frustration on everything in sight. His slam on Carhart (justified in my view) was among the most negative things I’ve seen him write. The thing I remember most from the opinion is the gruesome parsing of Carhart’s deposition (where he described getting a part of the fetus like grabbing a “cat by the tail” and admitting that he’d often wind up with a “tray full of pieces”). But at the levels below the Supreme Court, you don’t get to debate whether Roe or Casey were rightly decided. You just have to try to “follow” (a strange word in this context) those opinions. So, anyway, let’s just say that whatever he said about the trial court (and frankly I don’t remember any of that from the opinion) I’m confident it was nothing personal.

    When I took over as Dean of the Creighton Law School (at the advanced age of 37), I pretty much begged him to come out and speak at our annual dinner. My pitch was essentially: “I need people to take me seriously. You’re pretty much all I’ve got.” He came and he brought his wife Mary. He gave a great speech. I still treasure his handwritten card that said that I was providing “real leadership” for my school.

    It was, however, shortly after I invited him and he accepted that the Supreme Court granted cert in the first partial birth abortion case. I prayed hard (and I am a religious person) for the case to come out the opposite of the way it did, but nearly as hard for Kennedy to vote that the law was constitutional. My first prayer was not answered; my second was.

    I wish I had known you then. I would have invited you to meet him and I am confident that you would like each other. (Perhaps you have met.) In a good way, you each have qualities that remind me of the other. All the best, Pat.

  6. Mary, my eyes actually welled up a little at this (and I can’t blame it on allergies because I took my Zyrtec today). I think you and Judge Kopf deserved each other — in the best sense possible.

  7. Pat,

    I met the Justice once at the Hruska lecture at UNL.I was not able to speak with him at any length, however. I wish that were not so, particularly now.

    Incidentally, and not for religious or moral reasons, I have long believed that Roe was wrong because the definition of life, at least in a perfect world, ought to be a matter of democratic consensus not judicial fiat. It is odd how things work out, isn’t it.

    All the best.


  8. Rich, that’s the way I feel about a lot of contentious issues. I posted awhile about about the same-sex marriage cases. I think that given the odd voting alignments that AMK (and perhaps others) on the Court essentially wanted to say exactly that about same-sex marriage. In fact, Justice Ginsburg in a revealing and interesting interview said essentially that about same-sex marriage and hinted that she saw Roe that way too. Obviously there are times where the Court has to step in where there’s a clear demand in the Constitution to do so. See, e.g., Brown v. Board of Education.. I know others disagree and see the results in abortion cases and same-sex marriage as having the same sort of constitutional imperative. So be it; I have no yen to debate the merits of that right now. But I’m confident that you and AMK would have been good friends if the circumstances were right. Best, Pat.

  9. Judge Knopf
    Don’t be dismissive of these remarks. I find them Grand and very significant. They tell a story of humanity that we should appreciate and learn from. It was stories like yours that I used over and over again with my students to remind them that what they were learning in law school was the start of a journey of live-long learning and that they must understand that being a troll isn’t the essence of being a good lawyer.
    Thank you for this remembrance
    Terry Roberts

  10. Thank you, Dean (I am used to addressing former Deans as “Dean” forever) Borchers, for your reply. My years with Judge Kopf were among the best of my working years. As an aside, I am a 1987 CU law grad, and before law school I taught in and directed CU’s ESL program. I have many fond memories of Creighton. Nice to “meet” you!

  11. Thank you, Terry for your kind words. Incidentally, I love your line: “[B]eing a troll isn’t the essence of being a good lawyer.” I must remember that.

    That said, in a picaresque way, the trolls of the profession provide some of the funniest insights into the human condition that one can imagine. So, don’t be too tough on trolls, we need them if nothing else for object lessons.

    After all, without Gordon Geeko we would have never known that greed is good. Indeed, a very successful troll of a lawyer once told me that “if you can’t afford justice you don’t deserve it.” Roll on trolls! You make us shudder and, sometimes, laugh at the same time.

    All the best.


  12. Mary, I hope we meet in person some day. Thanks for your story. As for how to address me, I respond to pretty much anything. I’m just pleased not be called “numb skull.” During my six years a Academic V.P. there was the most baffling set of efforts to find the right thing to “call” me. I didn’t help any, because I didn’t care. Some called me “Vice President Borchers” but that seemed awkward. Some continued to call me “Dean Borchers” but that could get confusing because it led people to think that I was still dean. The faculty in Arts and Sciences wanted to call me “Dr. Borchers” which technically accurate, but an uncommon way to address a J.D. Some called me “Professor Borchers.” Almost nobody called me “Mr. Borchers” which is close to an insult in the academic world. Now I’m back in the Law School (though also directing the Werner Institute) so my students are all calling me “Professor,” but I get a lot of “Dean” from people outside the school, which is probably what I’d call me if I weren’t me.

  13. OK, thank you for the heads up on what I may call you. I think I feel most comfortable with “Dean.” All of the possibilities you mentioned are better than “stinky feet.” I, too, hope we meet in person. Perhaps by then I will be calling you “Senator.”

  14. Pingback: A PS to the posts on “casual cruelty” plus something more « Hercules and the umpire.

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