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‘Your Honor, he left to get a hot dog’

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Recently, I was in district court for a replevin action – that’s right, a concept you rarely must think about but learn for a hot second for the bar exam, a claim where the plaintiff asks for property back instead of money. This replevin, however, sought the return of paper.

That’s right, the 8½-x-11 white copy paper we all know and love.

The plaintiff had posted papers around a building, the owner of the building removed them and the plaintiff wanted them back. After reviewing the ever-helpful “Pleading Causes of Action in Maryland” and the relevant statutes, of course, I was ready.

I arrived at court and prepared with the client, waiting in the courtroom. The plaintiff approaches and asks to chat. We ultimately reach a settlement, and after we all agree to the terms, the plaintiff said, “OK, I am going to get a hot dog. Want to join me? My treat.” My client and I politely declined and return to the courtroom.

The judge proceeded to call the roll for the docket. Naturally, my case was toward the end. I stand up when it’s time and introduced myself.

“Angela Pallozzi on behalf of the defendant, Your Honor. We have reached a settlement that we would like to put on the record.”

“Where’s the plaintiff?” the judge asked.

“Your Honor, he left to get a hot dog.”

The entire gallery erupted in laughter, but I’m concerned the judge thinks I’m joking.

“Your Honor, I am serious, he told me he was going to get a hot dog from the cart.”

The gallery continued to laugh.

“I guess hunger called him,” said the lawyer sitting in front of me.

The judge passed the case waiting for the plaintiff to return.  Not unexpectedly, he did not come back.

We finally got called as the second-to-last case in the room, about an hour later.

“Has the plaintiff returned?”

“No, Your Honor.”

The judge, now finding the whole thing funny, proceeded to tell a story about a defendant he was prosecuting who fled the courthouse on a break because he didn’t think the case was going well.  That defendant also “left to get lunch” and never returned.

District court is an interesting place. It really is the people’s court. As a litigator who moves between small claims and multimillion-dollar claims, I find district court helps you keep perspective on life, cases, and people. I hated going to district court for a long time earlier in my career. I always got yelled at by someone and was generally uncomfortable.  I was more anxious about district court than circuit court or the appellate courts. At least in those courts, you have time to think through your arguments and plan everything out. District court is a free-for-all. You have to think quickly on your feet and be ready for anything – not just the legal arguments, but anything.

As I continued to work on larger, complex cases, I recognized that I was not going to get a lot of court time. Such cases just do not go to court as often and, when they do, I was not going to be the person speaking. So I tried to take on more cases that got me into district court, effectively throwing myself in the deep end.

Though terrifying, it was a great move. After years of practicing in district court, I am much more comfortable and prepared for the unexpected. I also have a better appreciation for not only the lawyers who practice there every day but the everyday people who need the services of district court for their issues.

With that, I leave you one more, funny district court story:

Same court, same week, different docket. This was a combined criminal and landlord/tenant docket. I am in the last row of the gallery. Behind me is an experienced deputy. The criminal matters go first and there are a bunch. Since I can’t do much but observe, I am watching the organized chaos of the criminal docket. I perk up when I hear over the deputy’s radio, “There is a drunk guy coming to the courtroom.”

“That’s strange,” I think to myself. “Why would a drunk guy be allowed in the courthouse, let alone the courtroom?”

Organized chaos continues. The judge calls another case involving a private attorney, and she indicates the parties are ready and have reached an agreement.

I remain in a daze until the judge said: “Sir, you are either very sick or very drunk.  Your counsel will need to speak for you.”

That got everyone’s attention. A short exchange ensued on whatever the agreement was and, at the end, the judge very kindly makes sure the man is not driving home. His attorney darts out of the courtroom. The drunk defendant stumbled around the chairs at counsel table and completely failed when he tried to push one in.

“How you doin’?” he asked the prosecutor. “You good?”

“Mr. State is always good,” the judge interjected.

The courtroom erupted in laughter. The drunk defendant by then made to the aisle behind me.

“What’s so funny?” he asked. “There is nothing funny here.”

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