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VOL. 35 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 15, 2011

Day in court leaves imprint

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I was sitting in Starbucks. Minding my own business. Reading the paper, actually. On a Monday morning.

I was sitting pretty close to the area where people pick up their orders. Thus, I was getting interrupted pretty regularly by friends.

And then for a while … nothing. At least, it seemed like nothing.

But, as I changed from one section of the paper to another, I noticed a fellow I did not recognize. He was practically staring at me. And smiling.

“I don’t know your name, but you’re one of those judges, ain’t you?” he said.

I closed the paper, extended my hand and introduced myself.

He told me who he was and continued smiling and nodding his head.

“I was in your courtroom about a year ago,” he continued.

I get this a lot. It comes with the territory. I handle all traffic cases that originate in a city with a population of almost 200,000. More than 25,000 per year, on average.

Not all come through the courtroom. But many do. I preside over some 300 different proceedings per week.

I don’t remember everyone who stands in front of me. But most of them, it seems, remember me.

That’s easy to understand. Most people have only one or two instances in their lives that bring them into a courtroom.

On a day when I am the only judge in a given person’s short story, that person may be one of more than 100 defendants in my book of stories.

It’s not uncommon for people to approach me in the grocery store and ask if I remember when they came to court after their kid’s first ticket.

“She was the one driving that yellow Mustang … you know, the wreck on Highway 10 at Pleasant Valley,” a lady said to me recently. “You put her on probation and she has not gotten a ticket since.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Now, when was it that you were in court with your daughter.”

“Six years ago. Maybe seven.”

Anyhow, I was expecting this gentlemen to be “one of those.” But he wasn’t.

He said, “I didn’t have a case. I was just there to observe. I think people ought to go to court and just watch sometimes.”

“That’s commendable of you,” I said. “All the proceedings are public.”

“I remember you telling this one guy to ask himself what would have happened if he done this or that differently. And then you asked another one why she drove the way she did.”

He paused, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I liked the way you tried to make them think!”

I was speechless. For a moment. As the thought ran through my mind, “If I die today, I want this guy to speak at my funeral.”

“Thanks for saying that,” I said, then looked at my watch and, truthfully, told him I needed to get on to the courthouse.

But I’ve not been able to put his words out of my head. If I were in fact to be remembered only for the notion that I tried to make people think … I think that’d be just fine.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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