"All rise! All persons having business before this Honorable Judge of the United States District Court are admonished to draw near and be heard!" trumpets the courtroom deputy.
Instantly, sports pages vanish into briefcases and legal briefs are tossed atop the stock quotes. Three rows of pricey lawyers leap to their wingtips and come to attention before a vacant mahogany dais. Never before has a piece of furniture commanded such respect.
"The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is now in session! God save the United States and this honorable court!" The deputy casts an eye in the direction of the dais and pauses significantly. "The Honorable William A. Bitterman, presiding."
Judge Bitterman sweeps onto the dais on cue and stands behind his desk like a stout regent surveying his serfdom. His eyes, mere slits sunk deep into too-solid flesh, scan the courtroom from on high. I can read his mind: Everything is in order. The counsel tables gleam. The marble floor sparkles. The air-conditioning freezes the blood of lesser life forms. And speaking of same, the lawyers wait and wait.
"You won't mind the delay, counsel," the judge says indifferently, sinking into a soft leather throne. "After all, waiting is billable too."
An uncertain chuckle circulates among the crowd in the back of the courtroom. None of us defense lawyers likes to admit it, but we will bill the time — we have to bill it to someone and it might as well be you. The plaintiff's bar doesn't sweat it. A contingency fee has more cushion than an air bag.
"Well, well, well," the judge mutters, without explanation, as he skims the motion papers on his desk. Judge Bitterman might have been handsome in a former life, but his enormous weight has pushed his features to the upper third of his face, leaving beneath a chin as bulbous as a bullfrog's. Rumor has it he gained the weight when his wife left him years ago, but there's no excuse for his temperament, which is congenitally lousy. Because of it my best friend, Judy Carrier, calls him Bitter Man.
"Good morning, Your Honor," I say, taking my seat at counsel table. I try to sound perky and bright, and not at all how I feel, which is nervous and fearful. I'm wearing my navy-blue Man Suit; it's perfect for that special occasion when a girl wants to look like a man, like in court or at the auto mechanic's. The reason I'm nervous is that this oral argument is only my second — the partners in my law firm hog the arguments for themselves. They expect associates to learn how to argue by watching them do it. Which is like saying you can learn to ride a bike by watching other people ride them.
"Good morning, Your Honor," says opposing counsel, Bernie Starankovic. Starankovic blinks a lot and wears a bad suit. I feel a twinge of guilt for what I'm about to say about him in open court — that he's too incompetent to represent our client's employees in a class action for age discrimination. If I win this motion, the action will evaporate, our client's liability will plunge from megabucks to chump change, and its aged ex-employees will end up living on Social Security and 9-Lives. Defense lawyers consider this a victory.
"Good morning, class," replies Judge Bitterman.
I force a fraudulent chuckle. The boys in the back do likewise.
"Ha-ha-ha!" Starankovic laughs loudly. "Ha-ha-ha!" The bogus sound caroms harshly off the walls of the cavernous courtroom, ricocheting like a subatomic particle long after everyone has fallen silent.
"Duly noted, Mr. Starankovic," says Bitter Man dryly, and Starankovic wilts into his chair. The judge's eyes shift in my direction. "Miz DiNunzio!"
"Yes, Your Honor!" I pop up and grin, like an overeducated jack-in-the-box. Popping up and grinning isn't something they taught me in law school, but they should have, since it's a damn sight more useful than Property. I learned it on the job, and it's become a conditioned response to more stimuli than you can count. I'm up for partnership in two months.
"You've done your homework for this morning, haven't you Miz DiNunzio? I expect no less from a former student of mine."
Bitter Man's chubby lips part in a smile, but it's not a friendly one. I recognize the smile from when I did time as his research assistant, during my second year at Penn. I spent three afternoons a week finding cases for his soporific article on federal court jurisdiction. No matter how good the cases, they were never good enough for him. He always smiled that smile right before he tore into me, in the true Socratic tradition, asking me question after question until he had proven, as a matter of logic, that I was taking up too much space in the universe.
"Miz DiNunzio? Are you with us?" the judge asks.
I nod, in a caffeinated way. My nervousness intensifies. Red angry blotches burst into bloom, one by one, beneath my starchy blouse. In two minutes, my chest will look like a thatch of crimson roses on a snow-covered field. Very attractive.
Bitter Man turns to Starankovic. "Mr. Starankovic, we've never met, but I trust you've done your homework too. After all, you're fighting for your life today, aren't you? Or at least the next best thing - a very large contingency fee."
Starankovic springs to his feet, blinking rhythmically. "The fee is of no moment to me, Your Honor, I can assure you. My only concern is for my clients, a veritable generation of golden-agers who have been ruthlessly victimized by defendant corporation, at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, relying on the fact that their hard-earned pensions-"
"Very good, Mr. Starankovic. You get an A for enthusiasm," Bitter Man snaps, which shuts Starankovic down in mid-homily. Then the judge studies the motion papers before him, ignoring us both.
I'm not sure whether to remain standing, so I steal a glance at Starankovic. He's swaying stiffly, like a sunflower before a thunderstorm. I take a chance and sit down.
"Miz DiNunzio!" says Bitter Man.
"Yes, Your Honor!" I pop up and grin.
"Approach the podium!"
I hear Starankovic snicker, which proves he doesn't deserve my sympathy. I walk to the lectern with apparent confidence and adjust the microphone to girl height. "May it please the Court, my name is Mary DiNunzio-"
"Miz DiNunzio," Bitter Man says. "I have your name, remember?"
"Yes, Your Honor. Sorry, Your Honor." I clear my throat to the sound of muffled laughter. "As you may know, Your Honor, I'm presenting this Motion to Strike Class Action Allegations on behalf of Harbison's The Hardware People. Harbison's is a national chain of hardware stores. It employs over-"
"I don't need the prospectus, Miz DiNunzio. I've heard of the company."
"Yes, Your Honor."
"I'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to have heard of the company, after that inane jingle of the theirs. You know their jingle?"
"Yes, their jingle. Their anthem. Their team song. I hear it everywhere - on my television, on my car radio - every fifteen minutes. You said you represent them, Miz DiNunzio, so I'm sure you know it. Do you?"
I nod uncertainly.
"Then sing it."
"Sing it, Your Honor?"
"You heard me," he says evenly.
A hush settles over the back of the courtroom. Each one of them is thanking God he's not in my pumps. I look down at the podium. My heart is pounding, my ears tingling. I curse Bitter Man, for humiliating me, and Richard Nixon, for appointing him to the federal bench.
"Pretty please? With a cherry on top?" The judge's voice is thick with sarcasm.
Not a soul in the gallery laughs. The courtroom deputy avoids my eye, busily examining the buttons of the tape recorder. Christ. It'll be on tape. "Your Honor-"
"Miz DiNunzio!" Bitter Man is suddenly furious; he looks like a volcano about to blow. "Sing!"
The courtroom is as quiet and stone-cold as death.
I close my eyes. I want to be somewhere else, anywhere else but here. I'm back in my girlhood, back in midnight mass on Christmas Eve, lost in the airy heights of "Ave Maria." I open my mouth and the notes fly out, unexpectedly clear and strong. They soar high over the congregation like the hymn, lovely and resonant in the wintry air. "Harbison's The Hardware People. We take the haaaaaard out of hardware!"
When I open my eyes, Bitter Man's anger has evaporated. "That was quite ... beautiful," he says.
I can't tell if he's being sarcastic, and I don't care. "May I begin my argument, Your Honor?"
So I do, and the argument sounds punchy and right, fueled by my fury at the judge. I rattle off the local court rules that Starankovic has broken, then segue into my cases, transforming each into the parable of the Careless Lawyer Who Undermined Our System of Justice. Bitterman begins to bare his canines in an encouraging way, which means he's either happy or hungry. I finish my argument and return to counsel table.
"Your Honor, if I may respond," Starankovic says. He pushes down the shiny pants that are static-clinging to his socks and walks to the podium like a Christian into the Roman Colosseum. "May it please the Court, I'm Bernard-"
"Save it, Mr. Starankovic. We both know that defense counsel is right on the law. Your conduct as class counsel has been a disgrace - even my law clerks could do better. How could you miss the deadline on your motion for class certification? It's the one thing you have to do and you couldn't even do that right."
"But Your Honor..."
Bitter Man holds up a hand that looks like a mound of Play-Doh. "Stifle, Mr. Starankovic, as Archie Bunker used to say." He glances around the room to see if anyone appreciates his joke. The gallery is too terrified to laugh, but the courtroom deputy smiles broadly. Your tax dollars at work.
"Yes, Your Honor." Starankovic bows slightly.
"Now, Mr. Starankovic, even though Miz DiNunzio thinks she has you, you and I know that I have total discretion in deciding whether to grant her motion. I may grant it or I may deny it purely as a matter of my own inherent powers. Am I right?"
"Of course I am. So your work is cut out for you. Your job is to give me your best argument. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't grant Miz DiNunzio's motion."
Starankovic blinks rapidly. "Your Honor, if I may, the class is composed-"
Bitter Man holds up a finger. "I said, one good reason."
"I was about to, Your Honor. The class is composed of some five hundred employees, and counting-"
"No. No. You're not listening, Mr. Starankovic. Repeat after me. 'The one good reason...'"
Starankovic licks his dry lips. "The one good reason..."
"'You shouldn't grant the motion...'"
"You shouldn't grant the motion..."
"'Is...?'" Bitter Man finishes with a flourish, waving his hand in the air like a conductor.
"No, you idiot! I'm not going to finish the sentence for you. You finish the sentence."
"I knew that, Your Honor. I'm sorry." The man is sweating bullets. "It's hard to explain. I-"
"One good reason!" the judge bellows.
The courtroom deputy looks down. The gallery holds its breath. I wonder why judges like Bitter Man get appointments for life. The answer is: because of presidents like Nixon. Someday the electorate will make this connection, I know it.
"I made some mistakes, Your Honor, I admit it," Starankovic blurts out. "I was having a rough time, my mother had just passed, and I missed a lot of deadlines. Not just on this case - on others too. But it won't happen again, Your Honor, you have my word on that."
Bitter Man's face is a mask of exaggerated disbelief. He grabs the sides of the dais and leans way over. "This is your best argument? This is the one good reason?"
Starankovic swallows hard.
I feel awful. I almost wish I'd never brought the motion in the first place.
This is the best you can come up with? The one good reason I shouldn't grant the motion is that you were making a lot of mistakes at the time - and this was just one of them?"
"Your Honor, it's not like-"
"Mr. Starankovic, you said your only concern was for your clients. Isn't that right?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Do you care enough to give them the best lawyer possible?"
"Yes, Your Honor."
"Would the best lawyer possible fail to file his motion for class certification on time?"
"But you failed to do so, didn't you?"
Starankovic blinks madly.
Starankovic opens his mouth, but nothing comes out.
"Didn't you fail to do so, Mr. Starankovic? Yes or no will do."
"Yes," he says quietly.
"Then you are not the best lawyer possible, are you?"
There is a silence as Starankovic looks down. He can't bring himself to say it. He shakes his head once, then again.
Socrates would have stopped there, but Bitter Man is just warming up. He drags Starankovic through every deadline he blew and every phone call he failed to return. I can barely witness the spectacle; the back rows are shocked into silence. Poor Starankovic torques this way and that, eyelids aflutter, but Bitterman's canines are sunk deep in his neck, pinning him to the floor. There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. There's only pain and suffering.
When it's over, Bitter Man issues his decision from the bench. With a puffy smile, he says, "Motion granted."
"Thank you, Your Honor," I say, dry-mouthed.
"Thank you, Your Honor," says Starankovic, hemorrhaging freely. He shoots me a look that could kill.
"Next!" says Bitter Man.
I stuff my papers in my briefcase and turn to go, as another corporate shill takes my place at counsel table. The pews are jam-packed with us, padded shoulder to padded shoulder, because the argument schedule is so late. I hurry by the freshly shaved suits in rep ties and collar pins. I feel like I'm fleeing the scene of a murder. I avoid the eyes of the men in the gallery, some amused, others curious. I don't want to think about who sat among them at this time last year.
I promised myself.
I'm almost past the back row when someone grabs my elbow. It's the only other woman in this horde of pinstriped testosterone, and her red-lacquered nails dig into my arm.
"This has gone far enough!" the woman says.
"What do you mean?" My chest still feels tight, blotchy. I have a promise to keep and I'm failing fast. I try to avoid looking at the pew where she sits, but I can't help it. It's where my husband sat with his first-grade class and watched me argue my first motion. The rich mahogany of the pew has been burnished to a high luster, like a casket.
"He hates us! He hates women lawyers!" she says. She punches the bridge of her glasses with a finger. "I think it's high time we did something about it."
I only half hear her. All I can think about is Mike. He sat right in this row and had to quiet the class as they fidgeted, whispered, and giggled through the entire argument. He sat at the end of the pew, his arm rested right here. I touch the knobby arm rest with my fingertips. It feels just like his shoulder used to feel: strong, solid. As if it would never give way. I don't want to move my hand.
"We have to file a complaint of judicial misconduct. It's the only thing that will stop him. I know the procedure. You file the complaint with the Clerk of the Third Circuit, then it goes to the Chief Judge and..."
Her words grow faint. My fingertips on the shoulder of wood put me in touch with Mike, and in touch with that day. It was a morning like this one. My first argument in court. I remember my own nervous excitement, presenting the motion almost automatically, in a blur. Bitter Man ruled for me in the end, which caused the first-graders to burst into giddy applause. Mike's face was lit up by a proud smile that didn't fade even when Bitter Man went ballistic, pounding his gavel...
Crack! Crack! Crack!
I pull my hand from the cold, glossy wood of the pew. Mike isn't here, Mike is gone. I feel my chest flush violently. "I have to go."
"Wait? How will I find you? I need you to sign the complaint," the woman says, grasping at my arm. "I have at least two other incidents. If we don't do something about this, no one else will!"
"Let me go, I have to go." I yank my arm from her grasp and bang through the courtroom doors.
My promise is broken; my head is flooded with a memory. Mike and I celebrated the night I won the motion. We made love, so sweetly, and then ate pizza, a reverse of our usual order. Afterward he told me he felt sorry for the employees whose discrimination case I had gotten dismissed.
"You're a softie," I said.
"But you love me for it," he said.
Which was true. Two months later, Mike was dead.
And I began to notice a softer-hearted voice than usual creeping into my own consciousness. I don't know for sure whose voice it is, but I think the voice is Mike, talking to me still. It says the things he would say, it's picked up where he left off. Lately it's been whispering to me that my on-the-job sins are piling up. That each hash mark for the corporate defense is a black mark for my soul.
Judgment day will come, it says. It's just a matter of time.
1993© by Lisa Scottoline. All rights reserved.