I have long been a fan of the federal courts. Although young lawyers are often intimidated by that forum, my sense of things is that it is a user friendly place. I've begun to rethink that in recent years. This morning gave me another reason to wonder whether my loyalty has been misplaced.
Little that I learned in law school prepared me for the actual trial of a case. And because I never clerked at either the trial or appellate court level, I walked into a courtroom more or less blind and dumb about how to get things done. But I was not deaf. I spent a lot of time listening to my adversaries and to judges telling me why I could not do this, that or the other thing. Over the years, I more or less got the hang of things.
I was lucky when I started practicing in the Connecticut federal courts. There was a huge backlog of cases and several new judges who had recently been appointed. For a few years, the dockets moved as fast as the lips of a confidential informant. There were months when I would go to a calendar call and pick two, sometimes three juries, and then try the cases seriatum. Nothing gets you over a sense of stage fright and intimidation like repetition. For several exhausting years, I learned the federal code of evidence and rules of procedure the old-fashioned way: by stubbing my toes until I learned how to tap dance. I miss those days.
The clerks and court staff were what made federal court a pleasant place to be. They knew how to do things. What's more, most were very generous with their time and talents. I wish I had been a been a better listener. It would have spared me a lot of embarrassment.
So what's changing?
Let's leave aside the court's great glee in disposing of civil cases prior to trial by way of motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment. (Summary disposition on the criminal side comes in the form of a guilty plea: the Government's cases are almost never dismissed.) Let's forget, too, those judges who view their lifetime appointments as a God-given right and who do as much or as little as they please. (You can wait forever for a civil case to be called to trial; some judges play hide and go seek with their docket.) Today I stubbed my toe on a little thing; a simple matter of customer service, really.
I wanted to file a motion to quash a grand jury subpoena. I left for court yesterday to file it late in the afternoon. But I was too late. The clerk's office closes at 4:00 p.m. So I turned up bright and early this morning. Too early, it turns out. The clerk's office does not open until 9:00 a.m. Not to worry. I went to a local coffee shop. (Damn. I should have gone to Starbucks, the satellite office of many a lawyer, or so I read.)
Shortly after the clerk's office opened I was standing at the veritable counter of justice.
"It's been a while since I filed a motion to quash. What do I do?," I asked. My pleadings were prepared and I slid them across the counter. I signed the original in blue ink having long since learned that black ink is a "no no." How in the world is a clerk to know whether black ink is an original signature?
"I see you signed the original," the clerk said. My heart swelled with pride.
"This will have to be a new file. It is a special proceeding. There is a thirty-nine dollar filing fee," I was told.
I was ready for that. I pulled two twenty dollar bills out of my pocket and slid them across the counter.
"Do you have change?," the clerk said. "You have to give us the exact amount."
This threw me.
"We cannot make change," she said.
Of course, I had no change.
"Why don't I just contribute the dollar extra to the office coffee fund," I said, feeling magnanimous, but also sensing that a massive wall wave of bureaucratic irrationality was about to descend.
The clerk looked offended.
"We can't do that," she said officiously. It was as though I had offered a bribe.
It is at moments such as these that I envision how fun it must have been to dress up like an Indian, slip into Boston Harbor in the dead of night, and toss British tea into a harbor. This reverie is usually followed by more modern visions of a putsch, with miscellaneous government officials lined up face-first against a wall as I reload my revolver. These thoughts are dangerous. So I tamp them down.
I walked to a nearby shop and begged change for a twenty dollar bill all the while muttering about time wasted. It is inconceivable to me that the government will permit clerks to accept cash but not make change. What are they afraid will happen?
Can't someone preach sweet reason to the clerks in the New Haven federal court? I know they are good people. I think they are just constrained to follow stupid rules. It may be that irrationality governs in the state court as well, but I expect that there. The federal courts are supposed to be special.