By Mike Bertolone
9:30 a.m., sharp. “All rise”, the redheaded court officer shouted. All at once, the courtroom of 50 upstanding citizens, attorneys, clerks and witnesses snapped to attention. “New York State Supreme Court is now in session. The Hon. Sarah T. Jamison presiding. Be seated.”
Matt Johnson stood by the entrance door to the courtroom. He was a 17-year veteran court officer with little tolerance for the b.s. dished out by defendants, arrogant attorneys, or street cops with a sense of entitlement. Attitude from defendants and attorneys was bad enough, but at least it was to be expected.
Street cops from smaller towns that didn’t have much violent crime seemed to have a chip on their shoulders when it came to interacting with court officers. They didn’t consider C.O.’s “real cops” and really dug their heels in when told to check lock up their weapons at the front building magnetometers.
It was now 9:45 - time for the stragglers to show up. The judge doesn't give them a pass for showing up late, and she ordered the clerk to put all late arrivals, including attorneys, at the end of the calendar. Of course, she didn’t have to hear all the mumbling and grumbling by the folks who were just informed of this policy. That was Matt’s job.
One straggler was assistant public defender Cliff McKenzie, known around the courthouse as “Mac”. He came strolling in at 9:49, and looked as if he had just rolled out of bed. Cliff was also known as “Fiscal Cliff” for his tendency to blow most of his paycheck every other Friday on drinks for court employees at the Jester’s Court, a popular bar in the trendy Courthouse section of town.
“C’mon, buddy…” Cliff started in on Matt. “Can’t you get the judge to move my case back where it was on the docket? I thought we were better friends than that, you and me. Remember that round I bought you and the guys last week?”
Matt had heard this schmooze before from countless other attorneys trying to get the court officer to smooth over their screw-ups with the judge. “Listen, pal, I appreciate the round, but this judge is a tough nut to crack – you know that. She’s not going to listen to me, especially when you were late for her last calendar. Just sit down- it’s probably good that you have some time to sober up before you make your argument.”
Matt looked at the docket and scoped out Mac’s case. Here he was, just coming off a bender, and representing a 19 year-old kid on a first D.U.I. “The judge is going to go ballistic,” he thought. He felt sorry for Mac’s client.
Judge Jamison was an attractive woman, a brunette with shoulder-length hair in her early 40s. Many who did not know her thought she could be “played” because they wrongly believed she was all style and no substance. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. She graduated third in her class at Yale Law, and had spent several years clerking for a federal judge before running for the bench herself. She had been “around the block,” in other words.
Court officers are supposed to be impartial, but they’re also human. Mac was genuinely a good guy, very generous to charitable causes around the courthouse. When a court clerk’s brother had lung cancer, Mac wrote out a check for $500 to help the guy’s family. That’s a substantial sum, considering he only made around 45 grand as a public defender. Matt didn’t want to see him get hammered by the judge for a) being late, and b) being hungover. And more importantly, he didn’t want to see Mac’s client get screwed because of Mac’s irresponsible behavior.
Matt knew he had to think of something as the judge’s calendar was winding down to its conclusion. He went into the hallway to tell a woman who had a crying child that her case was being called right now. Just as he did, he caught a glimpse of the flat-panel TV mounted to the wall in the lobby. It was tuned to CNN. The current story was about the worst flu epidemic in thirty-five years, and how it was overwhelming hospital emergency rooms. This gave him an idea.
He picked up a plastic bag from the lobby information desk and brought it back to the courtroom. The judge had three cases to go and then Mac would be toast, so it seemed.
Matt leaned over to whisper to Mac, who was still not in any better shape than when he walked into court an hour and a half ago. “Listen, Mac – if you go in front of the judge in this condition, she’s going to tee up on you. And then she’ll slap you with a contempt citation, and haul you up in front of the Attorney Grievance Committee. Now, if you don’t care about yourself and your career, at least think about that kid who’s your client.”
“But, buddy…,” Mac slurred.
“Buddy nothing – just shut the hell up and follow my lead.”
“Ok, boss,” Mac mumbled.
“Here’s a bag – start coughing up like you’re puking.”
“Alright…” Mac started to make vomiting noises.
The judge looked up from her papers on the bench. “What’s the problem, Officer Johnson?” she said in a stern tone, looking over the top of her reading glasses.
“Your honor, Mr. McKenzie appears to have a touch of the flu.”
Just then, as if on cue, Mac blew out a chunk of last night’s dinner into the plastic bag, which was no doubt drenched in alcohol. His eyes were watery and he was a mess – a flu victim straight from central casting.
“I apologize for being late, your honor,” Mac said, trying his best to be sincere. “But, I was up all night with this bug, and since I was late for your court the last time, I didn’t think it was wise not to show up.”
“Nice. Run with it,” Matt thought.
“Well, now, go home to bed. You’ve probably infected everyone in the courtroom, thank you very much. I’ll adjourn your case until the twenty-fourth. If you’re still sick, please CALL IN, and don’t come to court. There’s an epidemic out there if you didn’t already know it.”
“Thank you, your honor,” he said with a sense of relief.
With that, Mac and his client headed for the exit, and Matt followed them out.
“I owe you, Buddy,” Mac said, and this time he really meant it.
Matt pulled Mac aside and whispered, “All I want is for you to get some help with your drinking, my friend. We both know you have a problem. You’re a good guy and a great attorney – you’ve helped a lot of people around here. But if you don’t swear off the alcohol, you’re going to end up either disbarred or dead.”
“I know, buddy, you’re right. You saved my ass in there," Mac said sheepishly.
“Don’t mention it – justice was served all around today.”