Webster’s New World Dictionary (Third College Edition) defines Justice as: “impartiality; fairness; the quality of being right or correct; reward or penalty as deserved; just deserts; the use of authority and power to uphold what is right, just or lawful.” The same authority defines Mercy as: “kindness in excess of what may be expected or demanded by fairness; forbearance and compassion; a disposition to forgive, pity or be kind; implies a kindly understanding and tolerance in judging others.”
I had never really given serious thought to the difference between the two concepts before my first encounter with Judge L. Robert Rivarde. Judge Rivarde was a legend in the courthouses of the River Parishes of Louisiana. The River Parishes (Counties for those not fortunate to live in Louisiana) are the local jurisdictions that are up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. They include the Parishes of Jefferson, Saint Charles, and Saint James; although I don’t know how corrupt old Jefferson got associated with the Saints. Judge Rivarde had “ridden the circuit” in these parishes, serving as District Court (trial level) Judge since the early part of the Twentieth Century. He had heard everything a judge could hear in a courtroom, and loved to regale young lawyers with stories of his experiences.
Judge Rivarde was a petite, dapper man whose cerulean blue eyes constantly danced with laughter. Cotton white hair framed his delicate features and lay softly on the collar of his coat. His starched white shirts were drawn tight at the neck with large expensive silk bow ties. When not wearing the customary black robe, one could see good taste in his conservative three piece suits.
When I first met him, Judge Rivarde was eighty-five and still as sharp as the day he graduated from Tulane Law School with Order of the Coif honors. He was sitting as Ad Hoc judge, helping out with the overcrowded dockets in Jefferson Parish. His wife had coached him out of retirement, to seek relief I suspect, from his relentless storytelling.
On the occasion of our first meeting, I had a small tort claim pending before him. A pretrial conference had been scheduled in his chambers for seven in the morning. Opposing counsel and I questioned the early hour of the conference but neither of us had the courage to challenge the old jurist’s choice of time. After all, he had probably led Moses down the mountain with the Ten Commandments…at seven a.m.
When opposing counsel and I arrived at the Courthouse at the early hour, we were able to get coffee at Olin Bergeron’s sandwich stand in the lobby of the courthouse. Olin was supposed to be blind. The law required that all concession stands in courthouses be run by the blind. While Olin was not entirely blind, he did have poor eyesight and wore thick glasses.
We were allowed to take our coffee into Judge Rivarde’s improvised chambers, which was actually a jury deliberation room located behind one of the smaller courtrooms. His chambers were on the second floor of a glass-clad new addition to the old courthouse. Because the architects who won the contract to design the addition had also designed the Texaco building in downtown New Orleans, justice in Jefferson Parish was dispensed in an exact replica of the oil company headquarters. But this was Louisiana. What could you expect from the land of Huey Long?
Rivarde’s chambers overlooked the mighty Mississippi where one could see ocean going ships traversing up and down the River all day. During the spring, when the waters of the great rivers of the North flowed into the Mississippi, the River would almost top its levees and the current would be seven or eight miles an hour. During this time it was a thrill to watch fifty thousand ton oil tankers barreling down the river towards New Orleans, while trying to keep steerageway in the swift current.
When we arrived at his chambers, Judge Rivarde sat perched at the end of a long conference table, comfortably engulfed by a massive old brown leather chair. With rimless glasses, on this day he looked quite like an owl wearing an elegant three piece suit and starched white shirt drawn at the neck with a blue and white polka dot bow tie. Neither my opponent nor I had ever appeared before the good Judge so we introduced ourselves. He invited us to sit on each side of him at the head of the table. My opponent was from a family of local attorneys which the judge seemed to know quite well. The judge inquired of my opponent as to his family’s well-being. I couldn’t tell if this witty, friendly Judge held opposing counsel’s family in high regard or not.
Judge Rivarde always had to tell a story or two or more before he got down to business– no matter what the time of day or how many people were waiting in his courtroom. I think he arrived at work early just so he could besiege unsuspecting young attorneys with his stories of yore and give them advice on all manner of things, solicited or not. This occasion would prove to be no exception.
His story du jour concerned a case he had presided over in Gretna, the Parish seat of Jefferson Parish in the early 1920s. At that time the Courthouse sat back about two hundred yards from the ferry landing on the Mississippi River. The ferry conveyed cars and people from uptown New Orleans, where the Judge lived at the time, to Gretna and back. The Courthouse sat at the end of a fifty-yard wide parkway (called a neutral ground) with streets on either side that led to the ferry landing. The dirt streets and neutral ground became rutted and sloppy when the rains fell, which in the semi-tropical climate of suburban New Orleans occurred frequently.
According to our storyteller, he was a newly elected judge at the time and had already developed the habit of catching the early ferry and arriving at the courthouse before anyone else. Judge Rivarde, related that on the day in question, “I was to preside over a particularly contentious dispute between two residents of Gretna. The dispute revolved around the plaintiff’s claim that the Defendant’s negligent care of Plaintiff’s horse resulted in the death of the horse.”
My later experiences have taught me that you are more apt to get killed over disputes about animals, especially dogs, than any other reason.
As the story continued, I could envision the elderly magistrate as a dapper young judge. “I was dressed that day in a cotton seersucker starched suit, starched white shirt, silk bow tie, straw hat and brand new brown and white winged tipped shoes. Arriving on the early morning ferry, I started my morning trek from the ferry landing to the Courthouse. As I gingerly picked my way through the muddy morasses of the neutral ground, I heard men shouting,” Judge Rivarde told us.
He paused for a moment to withdraw a starched linen handkerchief from a pocket and clean his glasses, before going on. “They stood on opposite sides of the neutral ground with me in the middle. But, they weren’t shouting at me, they were shouting at each other, using a variety of lengthy, lively, vividly descriptive obscenities. I watched them with caution but kept walking hoping to reach my destination unscathed. As the obscenities escalated, I realized that the two men in verbal combat were, in fact, the very litigants who were to appear before me in my courtroom in three hours.”
Caution must have given way to alarm when the youthful jurist saw both men produce six shooters and begin to fire at one another. Finding himself in the crossfire, alarm gave way to stark terror as the instinct for self-perservation kicked in. With utter disregard for his dapper attire, the diminutive man buried himself as deeply as he could in the mud of the neutral ground just in front of the World War I monument. “I prayed that the conflict would end soon” the Judge said, “And it did. After each combatant had fired several more errant shots, the Plaintiff “got lucky” and hit the Defendant in the right thigh. This seemed to satisfy the Plaintiff to the point that he allowed the Sheriff to arrest him without resistance.”
According to Judge Rivarde, “After the morning’s excitement, I cleaned up as best I could and heard the rest of my docket for that day.”
After dutifully listening to the Judge’s story, as any lawyer with half a brain would do, we were able to get down to our business at hand. But before we got started, Judge Rivarde looked me straight in the eye and abruptly asked me, “Do you want justice for your client?”
I was still reeling from the story and taken aback by the question. I wondered if this playful, witty old man was jesting with me. Was this a trick question? I composed myself, thought a minute and said “Yes, Your Honor, all I want for my client is justice.”
The little Judge leaned toward me, grinned a little elfin grin, peered straight into my eyes and with an excited hand gesture said, “No, son, you want mercy. Justice is for your enemies.”
Over the years of practice and sitting on the bench, I found that Judge Rivarde was correct.
We all want and need mercy, justice is just too harsh.