Keeping Score in Room 113

by Jamison Koehler on May 24, 2015

If ever I fancied the notion of becoming a judge, I changed my mind after spending another day in domestic violence court last week.

The judge in Room 113 of D.C. Superior Court – where civil protection orders are handled – is two things that I am not. First, she is very smart. This is the second case I have tried in front of her. She does not miss a thing. When a trial is broken up, as it often must be, she can recall material facts from a couple of weeks ago. Second, she is very patient. With cranky, scared, and confused litigants before her all day long, she treats everyone with respect.

Lawyers spend most of the time we are in the room waiting for our case to be called. This means that we have lots of time to collect our thoughts followed by only brief periods in which we are on. The judge, by contrast, is always on. In cases in which the parties are not represented by counsel, she must also act as both prosecutor and defense attorney.

One of the things I like about this type of case is that, as a defense attorney, you always have lots of material to work with. In a stranger-on-stranger assault or robbery, you may be dealing with a single issue: the identity of the perpetrator, for example. By contrast, there is always back story in a domestic case. This means that, as a defense attorney, you will always have something on the petitioner. Because nobody is perfect. And domestic partners have long memories. They tend to keep score. The problem for the judge in Room 113 is that this back story – all of this anger and angst — finds its way into the proceedings.

The judge came over recently from the criminal defense calendar. I can’t help wondering how she likes her new assignment.

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Disliking the Victim

by Jamison Koehler on May 14, 2015

I wanted to hit him myself.

This is what I tell my client after speaking with the complainant in a simple assault case. My client is accused of punching the complainant in the face.

The complainant turns out to be a first-class jerk. I call him up before the arraignment to find out what happened. I also express concern for his injuries. This, I have found, is the trick to get people talking: People love to talk about how they have been harmed.

Instead, the guy tries to shake us down for money. “I have talked with some of my lawyer friends,” he tell me. “And this is going to end up costing your client a fortune. First he is going to have to pay your fee. And then there will be a civil case. On an hourly basis, that is going to cost him even more.”

I always hate peoples’ “lawyer friends.” They tend to give such bad advice.

I take a moment to process what I am hearing. “Are you asking us to pay you off?” I ask him.

“Well,” he says. “I don’t have any sons. But if one of my daughters got herself into trouble like this, I would say that $30,000 would be a fair price to be done with it.”

There is another moment of silence as each of us thinks this over. You see the part about wishing I could hit him too? Or thinking that my client really should have hit him twice – and harder both times?

“I have to tell you,” I say to him. “I think you may have misunderstood the purpose of my call.”

“Very well,” he concludes. “See you in court.”

If there is at least a good basis for my “dislike” of the victim in this case, I am disturbed by the negative reaction I have to the complainant in another case. My client is accused of participating in the robbery of the woman’s self-phone and then beating her when she resisted.  According to the medical records, the woman was diagnosed with a “bilateral nasal fracture” (i.e., a broken nose) and a fracture of the “left ocular/orbital floor” that required surgery.

Maybe there is some psychological thing going on here – some subconscious compulsion to demonize my opponent — but I dislike the complainant the moment I see a photo of her. Her nose is bandaged and both of her eyes are black. She is wearing a T-shirt with the words “Love” written across it. And she has this hurt puppy dog look on her face – a look that is at once noble and pathetic.   I like her even less when she refers to the group of people who attacked her as a pack of wild dogs and then lectures the judge on the need to hold “this type of person” accountable.

When did I become this inured to the suffering of other people?

My wife tells me I have changed a lot since I became a criminal defense attorney. She may be right. I’m not sure she meant that as a compliment.

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