Thursday, April 03, 2008

If my name were "E. Barrett Prettyman," I would change it before somebody went and named a courthouse after me.

and other thoughts I had while observing courtrooms in DC for a morning.

(When class assignments aren't graded, I see no reason why I can't write them like blog posts.)

Landlord-tenant court seemed to be all about everyone wanting to go home as soon as possible. Judge Fern Leibowitz presided over a courtroom that looked like an office. The clerks in the front of the room had pictures and little toys on their desks. The environment was informal and the hearings went very fast. The bailiff ignored ringing cell phones and people were in and out of the room constantly. Almost everyone wanted a continuance.

One case, Argyle Properties vs. Ethan Gomez, was representative. The renter’s legal aid attorney announced that the claimant had fallen behind on his bills because he had gotten sick. The landlord said he’d never heard that before the hearing. The renter’s attorney wanted to set up a supervised payment plan for an amount less than the rent because he said a recent increase had been illegal. Again, the landlord’s attorney said it was news to him. Judge Leibowitz told Gomez’s attorney to bring some sort of proof of the sickness and everyone agreed to discuss the matter again in two weeks. It amazed me how routine it all seemed. Lots of tenants represented themselves, some with knowledge of the system that suggested they were experienced lease-breakers.

I had not caught Judge Leibowitz’s name and was waiting in line at the clerk’s office to ask when Mr. Arniss, the attorney for Argyle, got in line behind me. When I introduced myself and told him why I was there, he was happy to give me his opinions on the proceedings. He called Washington DC the most “tenant-friendly” district in America and outlined several of Argyle Properties’ recent cases, asking me with each description if I thought the outcome was fair. He didn’t take “Well, I haven’t heard both sides” for an answer.

The Courtrooms at the DC District Court were more reminiscent of church. They were quiet and respectful. Probably the most interesting hearing I attended all day was a detention hearing in front of a Magistrate. The US. vs. Mendoza involved a convicted drug dealer who ran from the police for what my suburban self would say was no apparent reason. Officer Sidney Catlett of the DC police testified that he had seen the defendant running away, holding something at his waistband. Catlett had predicted where the defendant was running and taken a shortcut while two other officers followed the Defendant. Before Officer Catlett caught up with him, the defendant had stopped. When the officer came up to the defendant, there was a gun lying on the ground and the two other police officers on the scene said the defendant had thrown the gun down. But the only officer at the hearing was Officer Catlett. The defense attorney, whose name I didn’t catch, did a very impressive job of muddying the issue and making it clear that the witness had not actually seen the defendant throw down the gun.

I did think it was strange that there were a few points that went unaddressed:

1. Both prosecution and defense spent a lot of time asking the officer questions about exactly where he ran. It was admittedly confusing at the time as the streets were irregular, but in writing this paper I looked the defendant’s two block run to the address in question up in Google maps, which showed the odd layout of streets and made it very clear what had happened. I wondered why nobody bothered to bring a map, preferably one blown up to poster size.

2. There was a lot of time spent on what the officer saw, but neither the prosecution nor defense asked him if he had HEARD a metal gun being thrown onto a concrete sidewalk on an empty street in the middle of the night. Whether the answer was “yes” or “no,” one would think it would have helped somebody.

3. Nobody brought up the issue of fingerprints on the gun one way or another.

4. Nobody even speculated why the officer who’d seen the least was the one sent to testify. Given where the defense was going with how little he saw, I would think they would have at least mentioned that he was a strange choice of witnesses given that his testimony was mostly hearsay.

After some negative testimony from the defendant’s parole officer about the defendant’s harassment of an ex-girlfriend, the magistrate ruled that the defendant should remain in jail until his next court date, saying sardonically that the defendant’s supervised release had been “eventful.” The magistrate was quite sarcastic to both sides. I wondered if he was showing off for the law students in the back.

After the verdict, a depressed-looking woman in blue jeans waved goodbye to the defendant. I wondered if she was the old girlfriend or a new one. Either way, she was very understanding, all things considered. As we filed out of the room, I caught Officer Catlett and asked him why he was the witness if the other officers were closer. He said he didn’t know.

The detention hearing had taken under an hour, so I watched the first argument in In Re Fannie Mae Securities litigation, about whether Fannie Mae should be forced to turn over 4,000 documents to a plaintiff that was, I believe, the state of Ohio. They had turned the documents over to a regulatory agency voluntarily and the argument was over whether this voluntary submission of the documents to the agency meant that the documents were not privileged. At least, that’s how I understood it. This argument had been going on since well before the first motion to compel was sent in April 2007.

As I did my observation right before this paper was due, several of my fellow students were working on it the same day. Half a dozen had attended the detention hearing and come upstairs to the securities case. After about 45 minutes of listening to Attorney Melanie Corbin argue for the plaintiff about discovery rules, I figured I had seen enough. I had to get back to work, and the securities hearing looked like it would go on for hours. When Ms. Corbin sat down and one of her co-counselors stood up, I slipped out of the room.

One of my classmates left the same time I did. As we waited for the elevator, I said “Didn’t it blow your mind how the detention hearing only had one prosecutor and one defense attorney and this one motion has a dozen people in expensive suits on each side?”

“Why not?” My classmate asked, totally without irony, “The motion in the securities case is important.”


Anonymous said...

The boring procedures of court cases have always intrigued me. I've been summoned for jury duty on April 15. I've only been summoned picked one other time. I'm looking forward to it because it's a chance to see the system (flawed or not) work.

Stephanie said...

I used to volunteer as a mediator for landlord-tenant disagreements. All I can say is Ugh to that. It seems much more polite as you saw it.

PG said...

More to the point, the securities motion is civil litigation, which means the private sector is picking up the bill (for the most part -- Fannie Mae's neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring). In the criminal case, I'm guessing the government's got the tab on both side's. Mo' money = mo' lawyers.

And in fairness to your classmate, the Fannie Mae litigation probably does affect more people than the detention hearing does -- each one less *severely* than the drug dealer and those close to him, but from a utilitarian viewpoint, I bet Fannie Mae tots up more points than the detention hearing.

DC might have the most tenant-friendly courts, but I'd be shocked if their laws were more tenant-friendly than NYC's. Democracy at work: many more renters than landlords. Even once you own an apartment, you still feel more like a renter because you're fighting with the management company or co-op board.

Chalicechick said...


I know you're right. Indeed, I thought of that even before I wrote the paper.

But it still seemed such a popped-collar-GULC thing for that girl to talk about it like it was a foregone conclusion.


PG said...


It's a weird shift of thinking to believe that what seems to be this disembodied entity -- the corporation -- affects more people than an actual human being does. On the other hand,

a) privilege is an area of law with which all litigators deal, and it sounds like this might be an unsettled part of it, so it makes sense that they are having a lot of argument on the question (esp. as the trial judge probably is trying to avoid getting overturned on this at appeals); and

b) there's a good chance that at least one of the people at GULC with whom you make friends will be working for big corporations or a state government. Indeed, the dinner I had last Saturday included one corporate litigator, one public interest lawyer, me and an attorney in the Ohio AG's office. One of the things we like about my public interest friend is that even though she is incredibly committed to doing this work -- even if she struggles to pay her loans and wasn't getting paid by the NGO for which she was working -- is that she doesn't act like the work other lawyers are doing is less important than hers. Important in a different way, and involving a lot less self-sacrifice, but nonetheless important to the functioning of the fairly sophisticated economy in which we live.

(She might not *believe* the work is as important, but considering that public interest folks get a lot of their funding from the guilty consciences of law firm folks, it behooves them to pretend. As it is, public interest gets under-funded and her NGO can't afford her because law firm people think they should do pro bono cases as amateurs, instead of funding people who do it for a living. Which is not to say that Legal Aid couldn't do with being managed by someone with an MBA who thinks in terms of efficiency instead of just the next awful thing that's about to happen to a client. Their case management systems and documentation tend to suck because there's a shortage of managerial thinking. And I say this as someone who couldn't manage her way out of a paper bag, but can notice that MS Access comes pre-loaded.)