I’m all for civility at the bar, don’t get me wrong. Fighting with words doesn’t bring out the best in people. Lawyers ought to make a special effort to leave the conflicts on the record, where they matter. What goes on in the hallways is a different matter.
So I was surprised the other day when I was on the cusp of dropping a few expletives in the doorway to a courtroom. I share this story because I think there is a difference between civility and passive-aggressive whining.
Hartford’s criminal court is a world unto itself. The doors to individual courtrooms remain locked until a judge is prepared to take the bench. If you want to get into the backrooms, the hallways, the chambers of judges where the nuts and bolts of pre-trials are conducted, you need to get a judicial marshal to let you in.
Not a moment before 9 a.m., you can generally find a
marshal on the second and third floors, sitting at a desk. I’ve never had a marshal sitting there refuse me entry into a courtroom. But you have to ask them. They’re not mind readers after all.
The other day, I walked up to the second floor. Two court employees were shooting the breeze with a marshal, leaning on a counter. I nodded in recognition to them. The marshal’s back was to me. He was seated.
“Can you let me into the back, please,” I said.
The marshal sprang to his feet, and we began walking toward one of the locked courtrooms.
I didn’t recognize this man, but, then again, I don’t get up to Hartford all the often – once or twice a month about does it for me.
We entered the small anteroom separating the hallway from the courtroom.
A southern twang in his voice caught me off guard. I couldn’t make out what he said, so I looked at him quizzically.
“ A ‘good morning’ would be polite,” he said.
Huh? I can’t recall the last time I greeted someone with that. Was he kidding? I looked at him.
“My grandma always taught me to say `good morning’, to folks. It’s the polite thing to do.”
He wasn’t smiling.
“Are you serious? You’re breaking it off on me because I didn’t say `good morning’?”
“My grandma always taught me …” I had tuned out at this point. Was this Forrest Gump’s slow-witted cousin?
He kept mumbling the way they do down south, when they’ve just fallen off the truck heading to Stupid and struck their head on the pavement.
I was getting ready to toss an F-bomb his way, but he shuffled off, filled with the righteous fury of a knight errant.
The encounter bothered me all day long. I wish I’d been quicker to give him a piece of my mind. I wondered just who decided to put this fellow at the desk in a criminal court. I puzzled over what larger point he was trying to pull.
But I did not wish I had said “good morning” to the man. I wasn’t looking to strike up a yarn with him, exchange pleasantries, ask him how his grandmother was doing.
By day’s end it occurred to me he thought me rude. I’d no doubt interrupted him, probably mid-sentence, as he gabbed with his buddies about his wekend. He was going to show me who ran the courthouse, by golly.
So I got told off by Mr. Manners, a grandmother’s boy, new on the job, and trying to make his mark. He succeeded, I suppose. I won’t bother asking this prima donna in a uniform to do his job next time I see him. I’ll wait for someone who needs a little less from me, who is happy simply to do his job without stroking.
Can there be too much civility? Perhaps not. But there can be one too many obsequious nitwits. I met one in Hartford the other day. Move this fellow down to the lock up, please.