A grief observed

I have appropriated the title to this post from C.S. Lewis and his little book entitled a “A Grief Observed” that recounts his thoughts shortly after the death of his wife. This book helped me get through the death of my first wife the day after Christmas in 1986.

This is a blurb about the book:

Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the “mad midnight moment,” A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’s honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. This work contains his concise, genuine reflections on that period: “Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.” This is a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.

This post is not about a death of a spouse. Rather, it is brief reflection on trying cases to juries and the impact trying cases has on the souls of the lawyers.

Yesterday, my jury returned a verdict for the defendant. When I take a verdict, I review the verdict form first and then have the courtroom deputy show the lawyers the verdict. After that, I read the verdict out loud. In civil cases, I don’t require the lawyers and clients to wait around the courthouse for a verdict. They can go home if they wish, and we call them with the verdict. However, they can wait if they like.

The plaintiffs waited with Mike. It is hard to wait. Jim and I speculated how we could get the injured man and his wife some money if we could in good faith do so. The fellow was very credible. He was a lean and tough working man with an amputated leg, over a half million in medical bills, and lasting and horrible disabilities. Jim and I felt for him. But we ultimately concluded that if we had to decide the case we would be compelled to rule for the defendant a big corporation. No negligence would be our verdict. That’s what the jury ultimately found.

Credit: Museum of the Origins of Man

Credit: Museum of the Origins of Man

As I looked into the faces of Mike and his clients as I read the jury verdict I saw the pain that the rejection of their claim caused. The pain was palpable.

What struck me most was the pain on Mike’s face. He is not a kid. He’s 49. He has done this many times before. I wondered what he would think as he flew back to Denver to address the files of other clients piled high on his desk.

I know that when you devote your life to trying civil cases that after a while the highs are not so high as they once were and the lows get even lower too. And I thought of C.S. Lewis:

“Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Trying lawsuits is torture on the lawyers, and the pain is searing when the jury goes against you. It takes an unusual person to do this for a living. I hope Mike will be OK. If our situations were reversed, I am not at all sure that I would OK.

I might well take up heavy drinking and pick fights with my wife. A divorce would not be out of the question. I might be cruel to my friends and anyone who happened to venture within my sight.  I could easily turn into a “prick” lawyer making life miserable for my opponents and the judges before whom I appeared. If so, I would revel in their frustration. I would develop an ulcer or some other physical problem that I would ignore but bitch about incessantly. In short, I would be transformed from the loving and kind young man who started law school into a real bastard.

Trying lawsuits is torture. As CS Lewis observed, torture can bring out the truth in a man. Alternatively, it can turn a good man into a beast.

I sense Mike will retain his sense of humanity and confidence in himself. I certainly hope so.

We lawyers and judges who sit on the sidelines should have empathy for those who venture into the modern-day Coliseum of the courtroom to do battle with the lions and tigers that are waiting to rip out their beating hearts. Trying cases is a merciless endeavor, and it takes a very unusual person to do it day after day with grace and a peaceful soul.


Legal realism (or why I should immediately be found incompetent and taken to the home for old folks)

I am still in Omaha. My civil case went to the jury yesterday afternoon. They left at 5:00 pm. I hope they return today. My instructions weren’t that bad.

Yesterday, at noon I was wolfing down a sandwich and doing research. Jim, my brilliant career law clerk, who helps me with jury cases, was doing the same thing. We were stressed. More about that important lunch later.

The case before us is a sad one with a lot of money at stake–an amputation of a leg after a crushing injury. The lawyers are good.

No, that’s wrong. The lawyers are some of the very best. They fight like hell for their clients, but they are civil and professional to each other and everyone else. I really like them as human beings. They are quick witted and wry. Better still, they tolerate my jokes.

Murray Ogborn and Mike Ogborn represented the plaintiffs (husband and wife). A great duo those two lawyers. (I have known Murray forever.)  Mike is Murray’s son. Sorry Murray, Mike just might be better than you are! They know how to appeal to a jury using ethos (an ethical (truth telling) appeal) rather than the weak pathos (appeal to emotion) that so many plantiffs trial lawyers use to no good end.*





On the other side, for the “monster” corporation (Murray’s description at closing), sits Chris Tjaden. He is from a venerable defense firm. All alone, Chris represents his client with the understated manner of a great defense lawyer who knows how to appeal to jurors by striking at the plaintiffs’ weak spots and avoiding entanglement with minutiae. Chris properly and skillfully uses logos (logic)to slice and dice.

Back to my lunch of yesterday. So, I am eating a ham and swiss sandwhich at noon, while trying to do research about something Mike brought up, when the prongs on my oral appliance for my fake front teath decide to impale the underside of my tongue.


Since I recently had two teeth taken out on the right lower jaw, the prongs on the right side of the appliance are free to engage my tongue. I haven’t had time to see my dentist to fix the prongs. Ultimately, I ripped the appliance from the underside of my tongue. I started laughing at myself in a manic way as blood mingled with a piece of ham and swiss that I spat out on the cherry wood desk the government bought.

Thank goodness my tongue stopped bleeding, and I was able to take the bench and get the case to our attentive jury. As I write this, I am sitting alone in a motel room in the early morning and wondering how in the world I became a Senior United States District Judge.

I can’t even eat a ham and swiss sandwich without stabbing myself in the tongue. Will somebody please help me?


*For more on the three modes of persuasion, see here.

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