One Last Chat With Peter Dorsey

I never got a chance to stop in to ask Judge Peter C. Dorsey what he thought of the new gym in the basement of the New Haven federal court. It’s not that his door was not open. He was generous with his time. On the occasions that I was in the area with time to talk, he always made time. He was a great storyteller. Now that he is dead, I will never speak to him again. That is a hard truth to accept.

Here’s what I imagine would have happened had I stopped by.

“Hey, Judge, how are you?”

“Ah, Mr. Pattis,” he would say, with an appraising eye. “You’ve not found a hapless defendant with surplus cash to sue today?”

“No. I’m not suing a whole lot of people lately.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed the courts have been quiet, and that your senseless chatter hasn’t been echoing in my courtroom. Don’t tell me you’ve let us scare you away.”

“Well, judge, if you’ve ever met an immunity you didn’t like, whether absolute or qualified, I haven’t heard about it.”

“You’ll have to take that up with the larger minds in New York and Washington,” he says, gesturing now for me to sit at the large conference table in his office. He sits at the head of the table, presiding over this, and every gabfest.

“You look like you’ve put on some weight, Mr. Pattis. Perhaps you’d like to use the new gym downstairs.” There is mirth in his eyes just now. He is inviting a conversation about forbidden topics.

“I’d love to see the gym. I hear it’s pretty spectacular.”

“That it is, but I am afraid I don’t have the requisite authority to get you into that particular sweat factory.”

“C’mon, Judge. You’re the real deal, an Article Three certified lifetime appointee. Say the word, and I am in.”

“I am afraid I would suffer the wrath of powers more fearful than Congress if I did that.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Every army must be billeted and bivouacked, young man.” He says it in such a way that you know it was he who put the uncle in avuncular. I am far from young but forever a child in his eyes.

“If you are not the general, then who is?”

“My lips are sealed,” he says. “I cannot offend the hidden powers.”

“Hidden? What is hidden in these courts, judge? Transparency is the word of the day, is it not?”

“Ah, yes. But some things are more transparent than others.” He pauses now, and then motions to close the door to his chambers. We are alone when he says, with a telling grin: “Have you asked our clerk for permission to tour the new gymnasium?”

“Are you talking about, ...”

“No, names, Mr. Pattis. The walls have ears.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, I am. You know she runs this building with an iron fist. Many are the poor staff here who have felt the sting of her wrath.”

“Can’t you do something about it? I keep hearing people talk about the ‘court family.’?”

“I see you’ve not lost your sense of humor. There’s a new code in the building. ‘La Casa Nostra’ is the family code. Omerta is the survivor’s creed. You know there was nearly bloodshed in this building over the comparative sizes of the men’s and women’s restrooms.”

“I’ve heard. So how much did that gym cost, anyhow? I heard it was $800,000, but the Courant says it was $357,000. Do you know?”

“It would take a grand jury to crack that secret, and, apparently, a subpoena to get into the gym. You know the marshals here are forbidden entry?” The judge loved to stir up a little righteous mischief.

“That can’t be true. They guard the place. Why not let them use the gym?”

“You’ll have to ask the Queen of England about that, Mr. Pattis.”

“You mean the clerk?”

“I’m pleading the Fifth, Mr. Pattis,” the judge said with a wink. “There’s more than one throne in this kingdom.”

I will miss Judge Dorsey. His good-humored irreverence made the somber halls of a federal courthouse sparkle. I know he’d appreciate serving as a foil in this piece, and would cluck his tongue at those of you who think it indelicate coming so soon after his death. So long, Judge. I hope to see you again, but not too soon.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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