Hurricane Irene did not blow my family and me off the face of the Earth, but it did down power lines running along our property. We’ve been without power, and water, and telephone, and the Internet for days. My office, located just a couple miles from my home has also been cut off from the rest of the world. It’s been a good time to catch up on paper work and to prepare for a busy fall.
Well, almost. Yesterday I hopped a plane, actually a couple of planes, to Charleston, South Carolina, where a client of mine faced a federal sentencing before United States District Judge Sol Blatt, Jr.
Traveling to another state to appear in a courtroom reminds that the concept of a home court advantage is applicable not just to sports, but to the practice of law. I am not admitted to practice law in South Carolina. To appear with my client required that I ask the court, through local counsel, to be admitted to the bar for this limited purpose only, a privilege known as appearing pro hac vice.
I so moved in this case, and was soon contacted by a clerk for Judge Blatt. We played telephone tag for the better part of the day, but finally, late one afternoon, I was told the judge was in and was awaiting my call. I was placed on hold. The music playing threw me -- a Muzak sort of rendition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I would like to say that the hair on the back of my neck, but my hair is too long to defy gravity in that manner. Suffice it to say I was wary.
Judge Blatt did not greet me with open arms. He was unhappy that I was initially seeking a continuance of the proceedings, critical that I had waited a week or so before the hearing to signal my scheduling conflict. Of course, he was right. His message was loud and clear: Come South, but understand you are a guest here. Do not take us for granted.
I went to the courthouse hours before the proceedings were scheduled to begin yesterday, managing to get lost in the maze of buildings at Meeting and Broad streets. I first went to an old brick building bearing a small sign “United States District Court.” I no sooner stepped into the claustrophobic vestibule than I was directed to another building, just around the corner.
I passed through a metal detector and went through a maze to a larger foyer. “Where is Judge Blatt’s courtroom?” I asked. The guard looked puzzled. “Is this the federal court?” It was not. I was directed to yet another building. I headed out into the August humidity, around a corner and in search of a black fountain, marking the location of the building. I found the building, but not before passing an ageless black woman weaving baskets beneath a broad umbrella. Palm trees lined the streets.
I waited nervously for my client. Both of us traveled from regions hammered by Hurricane Irene. Odds of a travel problem seemed high. But soon we were both sitting outside the courtroom. Then local counsel, Byron Gibson of Orangeburg arrived. I was relieved to see him, more so than I though possible.
My general view of a courtroom is that it is a place for conflict. I am aggressive, brash and generally forever on the attack. It is easy to do that when you are at home, and know the players and the mores. But I was on foreign turf. The Civil War might still be regarded here as the War of Northern Aggression -- wasn’t Judge Blatt, a federal judge now for some 40-some years, still awaiting Johnny’s return home?
I had never met Gibson before, although we had spoken often on the telephone, but two minutes with the man inspired a calm I find hard to describe. He has the gift all lawyers should request of the gods: the ability to inspire confidence at hello. Given the brow-beating I had endured earlier at Judge Blatt’s hands on the telephone, we decided that Gibson would address the court on our client’s behalf.
Although the federal courts have jurisdiction over the entire territory of the United States, and federal rules govern them all, I was still surprised to see subtle differences in vocabulary. In the Northeast, a lawyer seeking a sentence outside of the range of the federal guidelines requests a “non-guidelines” sentence. In the South, you request a “variance,” a term confined to zoning matters in Connecticut.
But never mind. Judge Blatt takes the bench. The proceedings are a little more formal than back home. The judge addresses the prosecutors as “Mr. United States Attorney.” The probation officer is “Mr. Probation Officer.”
I see almost immediately that my fear of the South was misplaced. The judge is skeptical of certain of the government’s claims. Prosecutors are generally treated more deferentially in the Northeast. I sense in Judge Blatt’s courtroom a general wariness of federal power. And it strikes me: Of course! Recall the music on the judge’s call waiting feature? The federal government won the civil war: It is an ally in the North, something less in the South.
At day’s end, the judge grants a variance from the guideline’s sentence, and my client is spared prison. The trip is a success. After nine or so years or anxiety, a white-collar case closes on terms as favorable as could be expected. I have survived the South, and even come to wonder whether the courts here might have hidden charms for criminal defense lawyers facing the federal government on behalf of a client.
I head home today, but not until I take a bath and shave with the benefit of hot water, even a connection to the Internet -- things I still cannot do back home. You see, Connecticut is still struggling to reconnect to outside world in Irene’s wake. I had to come South to enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures.