I understand and accept the syllogism, I really do:
"All men are mortal.
"Mr. X is a man.
"Therefore Mr. X is mortal."
It’s a sing-songy soliloquy.
But substitute the name Warren Eginton for Mr. X and the syllogism will rip your heart out. Judge Eginton, or, simply “The Edge,” or “The Edgemeister,” as he was known to some, was one of the good guys. He presided as a United States District Court Judge in Connecticut for some 50 years before dying this week, at 95.
I had heard he was ill, and meant to go to see him. Cases and controversies got in the way. I didn’t make it a priority. A phone call dropped the news of his death like a bomb, leaving me numb, sad and filled with regret about not having spent more time with him.
I don’t know how many cases I tried before him. But I do recall that he was unflappable and I will never forget the twinkle in his eye when legal doctrine collided with the messy reality that is trial. The Edge got it. He understood what lawyers do. He was not in love with his gavel, and he never forgot that the law is less arid doctrine than condensed human strife.
Maybe 20 years ago, I squared off with the Government in a case involving the seizure of a valuable home from a man believed to be a drug dealer. The Government couldn’t make its case against the suspected narcotics trafficking with proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the criminal standard. So it sought to seize the man’s home by the lesser standard of proof to a preponderance of the evidence in a civil proceeding.
It struck me as a shady move by Uncle Sam, and I had plenty to say about it at trial. Some of what I said crossed the line distinguishing zealous advocacy from abuse. If memory serves, I may have jabbed a United States Attorney in the chest – out of the jury’s presence, of course – and taunted the prosecutor, perhaps suggesting we take the conflict out into the hall, or, perhaps the parking lot.
The Government, of course, was outraged. The next day, it moved for sanctions. I had them coming, I suppose.
Judge Eginton chuckled as the Government made its pitch to punish me for litigation thuggery. I don’t recall the exact words the judge said, but it went something like this. (He had a way of speaking in a slow, bemused drawl, savoring, I suspect, the sound of the law wrapping itself around the facts.)
“I’m not going to impose sanctions. This kind of thing sort of reminds me of when I was trying cases. These things happen. But don’t you think you owe the Government an apology, Norm?” I seem to recall something that looked, from the well of the Court, like a wink. I accepted the olive branch and mumbled "Uncle Sam, I am sorry.” The judge chuckled and we proceeded on with the case. (In the years that followed, the prosecutor and I became good friends, and remain so to this day.)
Judge Eginton was like that, a diplomat capable of bringing out the best in people due to the example of his sheer good will.
A few years ago, I was stunned when he asked me to be his guest at a several day conference in New York, the Second Circuit Judicial Conference. I accepted, of course; I don’t spend much time in federal court these days. I hadn’t seen Judge Eginton in a long time.
We reminisced about cases and characters. We talked about the state of the law, and my perceptions of the bench. The courts have become awfully stuffy, I told him. Judges seem to succumb to robitis, I told him, an affliction that transforms decent people into something like robots. Why is that? I asked him.
He just chuckled, and then asked me about lawyers he had not seen in a while.
He was good that way, an observer, and willing participant, in human folly. He never took himself too seriously. He had a way of blunting sharp edges.
I make a practice of never saying “Your Honor,” to a judge. It’s an unnecessary affectation. A judge is a judge; no more, no less. Even so, it was an honor to appear before Judge Eginton.
It is hard to fathom never being able to do so again. There is nothing sweet about the sorrow that comes of saying farewell to this fundamentally decent human being.