For whatever reason, the other day I found myself reviewing some missives that are Pretty Old. And, as usually happens, one really jumped out at me.
“I am writing to apologize for a behavior of mine, which appeared to be disrespectful in the courtroom last Thursday,” the writer began. “I was chewing gum. As I am legally blind, I did not see the posted notice. I didn’t have a mint or a glass of water, and without one of these or gum, my mouth is so dry, I can’t speak. Luckily, you dismissed the case without my needing to do so.”
Try as I might, I could not bring up any recall on the case to which the writer was referring. And then I saw the date on the letter: February 20, 2001. Just shy of a dozen years ago.
“My father,” the writer went on, “was the municipal judge in our home town for over 40 years. He always told us that the only two rules he had in his courtroom were ‘Don’t burn the courthouse’ and ‘Don’t shoot the judge.’ I’m not sure why, but Dad never wanted his daughters to watch him in court.” She didn’t mention whether she had brothers – i.e., whether the prohibition against daughters equally protected the judge’s sons.
“After I was grown, I sneaked in and sat in the back once, but that was a long time ago. So, last week, I was glad to have a chance to watch you hold court. I was there merely as a witness and knew that my husband had not done anything illegal.”
I paused and reflected. Eleven years, nine months ago. Man charged with something minor brings gum-chewing wife to court as a witness. Case is dismissed without wife’s testimony. I tugged at the memory strings. Nothing!
“My husband and I enjoyed a presentation you did a couple of years ago, and I was struck by the similarity between your sense of humor and my dad’s. Since I inherited a bit of it myself, I’m glad now to have a great anecdote to pass down to my grandchildren about the time their memaw went to court as a witness and was nearly sent to jail.
“It’s fun to imagine what an old blind and mute granny might have done in court to get into so much trouble! This incident could be entitled ‘The day Judge Fleming made grandma feel like a kid again.’ And I can tell my friends who are still teaching that when they remind their students not to chew gum in class, they can now add jail as one of the possible punishments out in the ‘real world.’”
The writer concluded with a promise “that if I am ever in your courtroom again, I will not be chewing gum.”
I feel obliged to note “for the record” that I have never even fined anyone for chewing gum in my courtroom, let alone sent someone to jail for it.
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 email@example.com.