I want to write a love letter, but every effort I make to do so seems wrong. My fingers hit keys and the keys fall flat. I can’t seem to find a way to move from what I think and feel to words that won’t be taken the wrong way. It is so much easier to give offense than it is to open arms or shed a tear. So let me say it, and be done with the stumbling: I am writing a love letter to a United States District Judge.
That might strike some of you as newsworthy in an of itself. If so, you don’t know the man. And you don’t know the dignity and grace with which he is facing a defining struggle.
You see, he has Lou Gehrig’s Disease. That means his body is failing him, even as his mind remains what it has always been, a thing of beauty, grace and power. The prognosis for this disease is horrifying. A patient suffers a lock down of the stuff that unites spirit to the world. One becomes a prisoner in a body that refuses to work.
In recent months, I have appeared before the judge on several occasions. I’ve seen changes in his physical condition. His eyes and demeanor are what they have always been. The man glows with intelligence. I get the sense that he is a Chaucerian soul, delighted by the human drama unfolding before him. I’ve been a fool many times in his courtroom.
But he struggles now to speak, wearing a headset with an amplifying microphone to broadcast his voice. He still possesses the physique of a distance runner, but there is a new stiffness in his hands. I sit, stand or strut in the well of his court doing my thing, trying to act brave, but I want to weep, to rush the bench and hold him in a sheltering embrace, to reach into him and yank by force the strangling shroud. But my role prevents such a display. The formalities of a courtroom govern. I stand near him separated by the infinite gulf of what feels like farewell. Between witnesses, I imagine reading to him, telling him fairy tales about courage amid dark woods and despair. I want to go with him, so that he will not be alone.
I love the man. So, there. I have said it.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not growing soft. No, not me. His mind is sharp, yes, but he is just as prone to error as he has always been. I read a decision of his in a case of mine the other day with the fuming sense that he must have worked to so misunderstand the points I was trying to make. Did I mention he ruled against me in that case? Perhaps that matters. I noticed no dissatisfaction in another ruling he issued not long ago. We won that one.
The gulf separating lawyers from judges is too wide. I’ve had a friend or two don the robe; it is like suffering a loss to see these elevations. Can I tell an off-color joke to a judge? Can I put my arm around a struggling friend who might preside over a case of mine? The duty of candor to the tribunal also imposes a burden: What friendship can bear unerring truths simply stated?
If I were a braver man, I would go and knock on his door, some trinket in hand to offer as a gift. But that might appear improper. Would the gift have to be reported to my adversaries in any case before the judge? I do not think the judge needs any reminding of the burden he is carrying. I will not create it.
But I cannot sit by and simply watch whatever forces control our destinies take this man little by little. He is my judge. If his illness is God’s will, then God is unjust. If the gods sport, then their game is foul. If nature runs her course, then she should be hobbled. If chance defines our destiny, then I crave justice, even if justice is but an illusion.
I watched him walk down the hallway from his courtroom to his office the other day and I wanted to call out to him. “Wait! Linger for a moment! Don’t go!”
I realized that is what I think now each time I see him. When he presided over a case that drew a large crowd the other day he used Judge Dorsey’s courtroom. It was the first time I had been in that room since Judge Dorsey died. I was lost. What could anyone say to meet a moment defined by loss and fear of loss?
The judge looked up and smiled. When he bid me to call my first witness, I found my feet. Once the flow of verbal battle began I lost myself in the joy of combat. I looked up from time to time to see pleasure in his eyes. It is his eyes I see and seek now every time I appear before him; he remains beautiful. The ravages of a harsh disease may try to lock him away, and it will succeed in some temporal sense. But the eyes are as lively and bright and filled with wonder as they have ever been.
I hope those eyes read this and accept it not as fawning, but as a heartfelt sense of loss and fear. I do not want to imagine a world without him playing an active part in it. This is a man whom lawyers love; I am one of those lawyers.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.