Have you had any interesting cases recently?

Because I am a federal judge, people sometimes think my docket is full of “interesting” cases. Not so. My primary diet is a steady stream of meth and other drug cases. A good friend of mine in another district, but in this part of the country, has told me that when he has a drug case, he assigns himself a research project to take to the bench or he will die of terminal boredom.

My friend picks a topic. Let’s say “the history of concrete” and while the jury trial drones on about what some snitch said, the judge fires up Google and learns all there is to know about the history of concrete.  By the way, did you know that the “art of Concrete was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire” but in 1796 “James Parker from England patented a natural hydraulic cement by calcining nodules of impure limestone containing clay, called Parker’s Cement or Roman Cement. ” See Historical Timeline of Concrete, Auburn University (last accessed 4:58 AM, May 30, 2014).

Anyway, over the last several days I have had an “interesting case.” I thought it might be worthwhile to write briefly about it. Why? Well, ’cause is it was “interesting.” Here is kind of a blow-by-blow:

  • I am in the office, fully awake given the steroids I just got from the chemo treatments, when my judicial assistant Kris comes in and places a stack of papers on my desk.  She muttered something about Omaha telling her these needed my “immediate attention.”
  • Judge Gerrard and I take Omaha civil and criminal cases to even out the docket. We don’t take a large number, but we do run up and down I-80 fairly frequently.
  • The “immediate attention” case was filed in Omaha by an experienced, very capable and dedicated lawyer from Legal Aid of Nebraska, Ms. Heaney. Lots of paper including documents in Spanish.
  • Realize that I am not going to have the help of a law clerk because of the coming Memorial Day holiday.
  • The case was brought under the “Hague Convention.” What the . . . .? That is, CONVENTION ON THE CIVIL ASPECTS OF INTERNATIONAL CHILD ABDUCTION, Oct. 25, 1980, 51 Fed.Reg. 10494, XXXXX-XXX (App.B) (1986), as implemented by the United States in the INTERNATIONAL CHILD ABDUCTION REMEDIES ACT, 42 U.S.C. §§ 11601-11610.
  • These cases are an enormous pain in the ass. They are (1) legally complex; (2) factually complex; and (3) require tired old judges like me to become both “party planner” and sometimes “travel agent.” See, for example, Morton v. Morton, No. 4:96CV3381 (D. Neb. October 30, 1997) (the “court will not probe the merits of the Utah court’s application of the Hague Convention, and therefore both the Utah and the German decisions will stand.” Therefore, “Maria is not entitled to an order returning Stephan to her [in Germany] because principles of ‘full faith and credit’ and ‘res judicata’ require me to honor the decisions of the Utah and German courts. Maria is free, however, to return to the United States and seek a change of custody before the appropriate domestic relations court.”).
  • So, I read the stuff or at least the English stuff.  Mom and Dad are from Mexico and they were once married. Junior was born and raised and lived in Mexico all his life. Mom and Junior travel to the United States and enter legally on valid passports and visas. Mom and Junior stay here. Dad and Mom have some sort of custody arrangement set out in Mexican legal papers.
  • Dad wants Junior to come back to Mexico. That doesn’t happen, so Dad contacts Nebraska Legal Aid and we are off and running.
  • The first thing I need to do is enter an ex parte temporary restraining order (TRO) telling Mom to say around with Junior and to deliver her and Junior’s passports to our Clerk’s office in Omaha. I do that, and then there is the practical problem of getting service.  Late in the afternoon, relay information to Omaha, huge pile of documents frantically copied by fantastically hard-working docket clerk, summons issued with the TRO papers, complaint and related documents. Docket clerk instructed to hand deliver all that crap to the United States Marshals. I search for Mom’s address in the papers and my order informs the Marshals where they might look.
  • Need to set a hearing on the injunction ’cause the TRO will run out in 10 days (or so). Set all day hearing for the Wednesday following Memorial Day,  and begin “planning the party.”
  • Sit down and write out a “who’s on what base” chart.  We have Dad. Dad has a lawyer. We have Junior and Junior doesn’t have counsel. We have Mom, and Mom doesn’t have counsel. Dad wants me to allow him to hire his own interpreter.  I bet Mom will want the same thing. The hearing is scheduled for all day, and I will need an interpreter for the court. That is, I will need an “official interpreter.” Actually, I will need two for the court because of the length of the hearing.
  • It is quite likely that all the parties are indigent.
  • Frantic call to our Chief Judge. May I tap the Federal Practice Fund? Lawyers who practice in federal court must pay dues. The Fund handles those dues pursuant to the direction of the Chief Judge and a Committee of federal practitioners as set out in a Plan. I need a guardian ad litem for Junior (see Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(c)(2)), standby counsel for Mom, interpreters for both sides, and two court interpreters. As always, Laurie reacts quickly and gives me the authority I need. Legal analysis required. Ultimately, the Federal Practice Fund is found to be an appropriate mechanism to retain everyone but our staff interpreter.  While we generally cannot use “appropriated funds” to provide interpreting assistance in typical civil cases for use by the court (the parties are supposed to pay), our excellent staff interpreter (holding an LLM from the London School of Economics) and I decide that appropriated funds may be used to allow her to make the required official record in this case because of our government’s treaty obligations and otherwise. That is, the staff interpreter can show up and interpret while being paid her normal salary. Not so sure about how to handle her substitute, but we will work that out later.
  • Now, I have to find a Guardian ad Litem, a standby lawyer and interpreters for the parties. Decide to allow Dad and Mom to hire their own interpreters, but enter order limiting how much the Federal Practice Fund will pay. Also, substitute interpreter for our official interpreter contacted and she agrees to assist even though the precise way in which she will be paid has not been worked out.
  • Call chair of Federal Practice Committee for a suggestion on a Guardian Ad Litem. That leads to the appointment of the very bright Kara J. Ronnau. She accepts the appointment when I call her. Enter order giving Ms. Ronnau instructions that I want her to be familiar with the file and the applicable law in anticipation of the hearing but to take no further action until instructed by me to do so.
  • Call a former INS officer, and excellent lawyer, Raul Guerra. He agrees to accept appointment as standby counsel for Mom under the Fund. Enter order like the one I entered for Kara. I instruct him to get prepared on the law and the file, but to do no more until further instructions provided.
  • Go home for Memorial Day. Hoping to veg. I really want to see that program on the logistics of D-Day.
  • E-mails arrive over the holiday.
  • Mom has hired a lawyer. A good one too. Her name is Ashley M. Trankle.
  • Instruct everyone that I will hold a telephone conference on Tuesday (the day before the hearing). E-mail instructions given for conference. Can’t do it in the morning, given my chemo infusion. Hope they don’t give me Ativan which might make me slightly goofier than normal.
  • Not goofier than normal. Tuesday afternoon conference held. Case settled but nothing yet in writing. Instruct lawyers to file written settlement papers, make arrangements for delivery of passports back to Omaha so Junior and Dad can fly back to Mexico tomorrow with proper documentation (and with the assistance of the helpful Mexican consulate).
  • Settlement papers filed and reviewed. It appears they have been translated. Great! Parties ordered to perform their settlement, case dismissed with prejudice with the court retaining jurisdiction to enforce settlement agreement (in the event the kid didn’t make it back to Mexico or something else happened).
  • Junior and Dad return to Mexico. I suppose Mom and Dad will work out more precise custody arrangements in Mexico while agreeing to keep each other informed about Junior.

You want to know something? I’m too old for “interesting” cases. Give me back my meth cases!


12 responses

  1. Judge:
    A rather orderly disposition of your intersting case. Not to try and top you but many years ago yours truly worked as an attorney for indigent adults and children parties in the Family Court in the Bronx at around the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Orderliness was not exactly something one saw there on a regular basis. Yet, believe it or not, the Bar was filled with many types of people who nonetheless got along with each other and with the judges–perhaps out of necessity–despite cases that were as bad as you might imagine. The good news? As with the resolution in your case, I used to tell myself that it was all about having a happy ending because they were so rare. The letters from children clients (I used to say that representing children was “the best gig in the courthouse”) representing that idea still adorn my walls as a reminder of how privileged we are as attorneys.

  2. I dont’ know if that is an “ineresting” case or a case in which the judge has to do a lot of what boils down to administrataive or magisterial work like getting citation issued.
    What you need is one with some complex legal issues with no answers. You would have loved the cases I tried before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. We had lots of issues with no clear answers and the judges had to actually think outside the box.
    For example, if an accused is acquitted of murder as a crime against humanity at the motion for judgment of acquittal and the prosecution does no exercise its right to interlocutory appeal, is crime against humanity extermination jeopardy barred? That will drive you up a wall.
    I think dealing with interesting, ouitside the box legal issues will keep you young so I hope you get lots of them.
    Get well.

  3. Tom,

    All I can say is “wow.” What a fascinating experience. You must guest post. Please.

    All the best.


  4. Robert,

    Yes, there is something about working to together–lawyers and judges and even parties–that sometimes makes our work feel worthwhile. I am glad you remembered and recounted your experience in the Bronx. Thank you.

    All the best.


  5. Hm, my firm doesn’t usually have cases that are legally interesting. Most patent prosecution work is arguing the same precedents over and over. Some of the content of the inventions can be interesting.

    We had a client from a few years back who had a crazy sounding scheme for converting old 2L soda bottles into roofing tiles by crushing them and adding a special cap. We searched it and sure enough, nobody had thought of that before. So we did a case for him (two actually, one on the special cap and one on the whole system). Turns out he has been very successful in selling this system, and has (as far as I know) been in talks with Coca Cola about modifying their bottles to work better with his system.

    His patents if you want a read:

  6. Just a joy reading this. Am sitting at Delta in JFK, waiting to take-off for Russia. You are working much too hard and taking your comittment to your job much too seriously at this time in your life. I know the joys of judging. I also know the joys of practicing law. But the joy I get at this late stage in my life from having to make my life relevant also holds a high rank. You should try it. Leave the bench and write.

  7. As for interesting cases, recently! I went to Family Court as a support person. GAL tried to have me excluded on the grounds I was a lawyer and my friend, a homeless person, hadn’t said he had an attorney and I hadn’t filed a notice. Judge asked me if I attended as a lawyer. I advised him I had let my licenses lapse and was a full time photographer. He let me sit at counsel table. I rubbed my guys back as the petitioner laid out her case. He didn’t say a word. Judge dismissed the petition. My guy credited me with a win. I took him out to lunch, after telling him he got a favorable decision because the law was on his side, nothing more, nothing less. He wanted to thank the Judge, observing that he never won when he went to court. “Don’t have to thank the Judge dude; he was just doing his job.”

  8. I once worked in the Bronx. Great place to work. Great people to work with. Thought I did some justice when I practiced there and sat there in Criminal Court.

  9. Lorin,

    What a perfectly wonderful story. (The one I think that is below this reply–the one where you rub the back of your non-client, and take the guy to lunch while telling him that he doesn’t have to thank the judge for doing the judge’s job.)

    As for leaving the bench and writing, truth is I am too scared. But, my friend, you nailed it. Not the great American novel. Not (never) documentary style non-fiction. Not journalism. Just short essays. I love vignettes.

    But, again, Lorin, I am too frightened, at least now, to try it. But, in truth, I am walking toward that end slowly but surely. You are a very perceptive person, and that must have made you a helluva judge (even though it must have also made you sick at heart a good deal of the time).

    Be safe in your travels.

    All the best.


  10. Peter,

    I took you up. Here is the abstract, as you know, to the first patent:

    An environmentally friendly building system for promoting long term carbon capture and sequestration of roofing and siding by utilizing recycled/upcycled, collapsed, preformed, and post consumer plastic material. The system includes a plurality of tiles. The plurality of tiles interlock with each other to form overlapping courses of laterally staggered roofing or siding. Each tile includes a bottle and a cap connector. The cap connector of each tile caps off the bottle of an associated tile, and hooks into the bottle laying on top thereof so as to hold the overlapping courses of the laterally staggered roofing or siding in place. The bottle of each tile is made from recycled/upcycled, collapsed, preformed, and post consumer plastic material for promoting the long term carbon capture and sequestration of the laterally staggered roofing or siding so as to be environmentally friendly.

    While you can’t dance to that tune, one easily sees the business possibilities once the inventor laid it out, no doubt in fits and spurts and barely intelligible grunting aloud. That is what used to fascinate me about regular people I represented in the practice of law who wanted to start a business. The saw abstract possibilities and they trusted me to visualize, legally, their aspirations.THAT is “interesting” work.

    All the best.


  11. Settled, huh? Too bad. Had I been judge, I would have had both parents and Junior in my court and offered to divide Junior in half, one section to each parent.

    Worked once, in a quasi-related venue. Might work again.

    Eric Hines

  12. Unfortunately for those entrepreneurs, at least with people seeing patents for weird new inventions, it usually doesn’t work out. Bringing a new invention to market is a very high risk prospect, and most people don’t see any financial success. When I talk to clients about it, I often use the analogy of putting the entire fee they’re paying us on a single number in roulette.

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