David Bruce: Law Anecdotes


On August 4, 1961, in a Panama City, Florida, courtroom, Clarence Earl Gideon went on trial on a burglary charge. The judge asked him, “Are you ready to go on trial?” Mr. Gideon replied, “I am not ready, your Honor.” The judge asked why not, and Mr. Gideon replied, “I have no Counsel.” He then explained that he was indigent and could not afford to hire a lawyer, and he requested that the court appoint a lawyer to defend him. The judge ruled that Mr. Gideon would have to defend himself, and eventually Mr. Gideon was convicted and given a five-year prison sentence. In prison, he studied law books and the Bill of Rights, and he handwrote a petition asking the Supreme Court to review his trial and conviction. In 1963, the court did so in Gideon v. Wainwright, and it established the principle that to have a fair trial in many court cases, the defendant must have a lawyer, and if the defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the court must appoint one free of charge to the defendant. Of course, this ruling applied to many more people than just Mr. Gideon — it helped protect the rights of accused people who were indigent. A reporter asked Mr. Gideon in 1972, “Do you feel like you accomplished something?” Mr. Gideon replied, “Well, I did.”

Thomas Garrett, a Quaker, was a fervent abolitionist. Once he was caught helping a slave woman and her child escape to freedom, and he was taken before a judge. The judge knew that Mr. Garrett was a man of his word, and he offered to let Mr. Garrett go free if he would give his word not to help any more runaway slaves. Mr. Garrett responded, “Friend, thee better proceed with thy business.” He was given a jury trial, found guilty, and was fined $8,000 — a lot of money now, but a huge amount of money before the Civil War. In fact, the fine, combined with business problems, made him bankrupt. After the trial, Mr. Garrett told the sheriff, “Friend, I have not a cent in the world, but if thee knows of a man needing a meal, send him to me.”

Two men who were engaged in a dispute came to R’ Avraham Yitzchak of Karlitch and asked him to make a ruling. For hours, the two men presented their cases, making argument after argument. After they had finished speaking, he quickly made his ruling, which the two men accepted, and the two men departed as friends. Afterwards, R’ Avraham Yitzchak was asked why he had listened for hours to arguments when the case was simple. He said, “Had I cut them off before each had his full say, neither of them would have been satisfied. Both would have felt that an injustice had been done. After I gave them all that time to say everything they had to say, they felt that justice was done, and they accepted the verdict gladly.”

For a while, closeted homosexuals were allowed to serve in the military provided they followed the rule, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” This wasn’t always the case. Previously, homosexuals were discharged from the military when their sexual orientation was discovered. Once, a lesbian was chosen for jury duty. The judge told everyone who was selected for jury duty that “justice takes no holiday.” Hearing this, the lesbian stated that if she were in the military, she would be discharged. On the ground that “injustice should not take a holiday,” she asked to be discharged from jury duty. The judge did as she asked.

During the Joseph McCarthy era, Hazel Wolf, a Canadian-born secretary in a law office and a former member of the Communist Party (when being a member was popular in USAmerica — the Depression) was arrested and thrown into jail because the government wanted to try her and get her deported back to Canada. However, she got out of jail by paying bail — and promising not to leave the country. (At age 100, Ms. Wolf was still in Seattle and was an active advocate for the environment.)

Fiorello La Guardia served as a night-court judge during the Depression. One night, a woman appeared before him who was guilty of stealing food so she could feed her hungry children. Mr. La Guardia heard the case, then he ruled: “I fine you $10 for stealing, and I fine everyone else in this courtroom, myself included, 50 cents for living in a city where a woman is forced to steal to feed her children.” The money collected in the courtroom was used to pay the woman’s fine, and the leftover money was given to her.

Among his other occupations, Nasrudin was a judge. While listening to the beginning of a complicated case, he told the plaintiff, “I think that you are right.” Later, after hearing the defendant, Nasrudin told him, “I think that you are right.” When the clerk of the court asked him, “How can both the plaintiff and the defendant be right? One of them must be wrong,” Nasrudin replied, “I think that you are also right.”

Olivia Pound’s father was a Nebraska judge in the 19th century. Once, a lawyer who was also an alcoholic attempted to argue a case before him, even though the lawyer was obviously inebriated. The judge listened for a few minutes, then banged his gavel and ruled, “This case is postponed for two weeks. The lawyer is trying to practice before two bars at the same time. It can’t be done.”

As President, John F. Kennedy appointed his younger brother Robert Kennedy as Attorney General of the United States — a decision for which he was much criticized, in part because Bobby Kennedy was so young and inexperienced. President Kennedy explained his decision in this way: “Bobby wants to practice law, and I thought he ought to get a little experience first.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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