Christmases Past

Christmases Past

studdard-james
James Studdard is a local attorney and contributor to this newspaper and other publications. He may be reached for comment at studlaw2000@yahoo.com.

Every year around Christmas time I reflect upon Christmases past and my experiences in the business of practicing law. My most vivid memories are of the Justices of the Peace, then known as J.P.’s, now Magistrates (70’s and 80’s). They were not required to be licensed attorneys; in fact, law school was not even a pre-requisite.  If you were at least 21, fairly literate and had some spare time, you were qualified.
These were the real characters and the ones who most influenced me in my law career. One or two in particular stand out.  One J.P. was John E. Bond (Johnny to his friends and a few regular defendants).  Justice Bond held court in the McDonough Militia District in Henry County.  Justice Johnny had a Shell service station on the square next door to the Courthouse which did right well, especially during court terms.  The counties would not budget great sums of money for J.P. court facilities so Johnny was sort of forced to hold court at his place of business, which as I said, was a filling station.  As you might imagine, there were many distractions.  Johnny had a bell which clanged back by the grease-rack every time a car would pull in for gas.
Johnny was usually pretty good about having a hired hand about the place to answer the bell, but on occasion he had it all by himself.  That’s when the adage “saved by the bell” was born, or at least taken to a higher plane by us brilliant defense lawyers.  Here’s how it worked.  If you happened to represent a guilty defendant (hey, stuff happens) who was going down the tubes on cross-examination just because he forgot the office rehearsal, uh, defense strategy, you could quickly make an objection.  What you objected to was not important.  The idea was to stall the proceedings until the customer bell rang and Johnny would have to put court on hold while he tended the gas pumps.  While he was gone, you could whisper all sorts of exculpatory stuff in your client’s ear.  There are probably some horrible criminals running loose in McDonough, Georgia today who, but for a busy day at Johnny’s Shell station, would be securely shackled in some maximum security prison.
Justice Ruby Quick, of Ellenwood Militia District was more fortunate than most.  She had her own courthouse situated on the side of a rolling hill overlooking the railroad tracks in Ellenwood.  As you crossed the tracks and beheld the majesty of that legal temple, you knew that justice was about to be dispensed (you just hoped your client would not be the dispensee).   The only problem though, with this awe inspiring edifice was the heating system.  Justice Quick’s idea of central heat was a centrally located pot-bellied stove and it seemed she only had court in the winter months and only when the temperature dipped below frostbite levels. Court was always around seven o’clock p.m., or when the sun went down, whichever was colder.  Her husband, as I recall, worked at General Motors by day and acted as her Constable by night. Inevitably, on the coldest night of the year, court would convene in Ellenwood.  How cold was it?  It was so cold, the pages of your law books would stick together due to the condensation/freezing phenomenon.
Here’s how it worked.  Just as soon as all the parties were huddled around the pot-bellied stove, I would announce that due to the gravity of the (false) charges lodged against my client I would have to insist that her Honor invoke the rule of sequestration.  Remember now, this was a one room building, and sequestration meant all witnesses had to wait outside until called to testify.  This worked especially well if you had an Atlanta lawyer on the other side.  Almost always they would come down in thin silk suits with socks to match and their witnesses dressed pretty much the same.
The constable insisted that all participants follow, without question, the judge’s orders, plus he wore a big gun (in plain view), which encouraged judicial correctness.  So the thinly clad Atlanta lawyer had to order his battery of witnesses out into the bitter cold of an Ellenwood winter night, while my client and I basked in the toasty (once it got going) warmth of that glorious pot-bellied stove.  You can believe I cross-examined each witness ever so slowly so as to leave the other accusing witnesses out in the cold as long as possible.
The Justice of the Peace in the Forest Park Militia District had a courtroom in Forest Park but there arose a flap with the locals over the noise level of his court proceedings and he was requested (to put it charitably) to vacate.  The Justice drove a potato chip truck by day which was lucky for him, because he needed a temporary courtroom until other facilities could be secured; so he simply converted the truck into sort of a rolling court room.  No one was allowed in the truck (against company policy) but the Justice provided, for the comfort of the litigants, a card table and folding chairs.  He would sit on the tail-gate of the truck, thus elevating himself to the level befitting a presiding Justice.  One gray, snow filled Christmas Eve, Paul Weiner, a colleague of mine (an excellent lawyer, since deceased) and I had been retained, respectively; by two gangs of warring teenagers, all charged with battery.  Paul represented the batterers and I represented the batterees or vice versa. It was getting late on Christmas eve and the weather was getting worse so Paul and I agreed to try and negotiate a settlement between the terrible teens and let all the combatants and their disgruntled parents get on with Christmas.  But nooooo! My gang wanted blood, Santa or no Santa.  Paul’s gang snarled and double dogged dared my gang to a re-match as we tried without any luck to salvage what was left of Christmas eve.  A trial was inevitable.
And so it came to pass that the Justice of the Forest Park Militia District would preside over this teen-age brouhaha.  Remember now, it was snowing and cold, bitterly cold. It was far too cold to convene court on the potato chip truck (it had a heater, but remember the Justice wouldn’t let anyone get inside), so he ordered that all parties (over a gaggle of protests from the Justice’s neighbors) convene in his living room.  And so we did. Get the picture now.  Here is the Justice ensconced in this big over-stuffed couch and on either side of him is a gang of bedraggled, battle scarred kids with snarling parents to match.
Paul and I, at about the same time, realized that things could only go down-hill from there, plus the stores were closing soon and he and I both needed to do some last minute shopping.  We asked the Justice for leave to go out on the back porch to try and hammer out some sort of peace agreement.  Whereupon we went out into that snowy night and negotiated until we were practically frostbitten in the name of teen justice.  The teens and their guardians hissed and complained but finally, albeit reluctantly, agreed to settle their dispute. All that was required was a written agreement which was drawn up by one of us and then the Justice’s written signature of approval.  We asked, as is customary, for permission to approach the couch with our written agreement which would settle this bitter brawl, but his honor did not respond.  Again, in more stentorian voice, we requested to approach his honor.  Again, he did not budge.  Finally we dared approach uninvited and it was then we realized that his honor was, well, asleep.  Paul said it was the effects of some medicine the Justice was taking.  We sort of helped the Justice sign the document (in fact, Paul may have guided his hand a little). Neither bunch of the youthful litigants were happy with the wimpy way we settled their case, but they grumbled on out into that snowy Christmas eve night, leaving the Justice sleeping soundly and Paul and I alone with our thoughts.