MENTAL TOUGHNESS – One Tough Guy

Ronnie Oppenheimer did not let cerebral palsy interfere with his practicing law in the rough and tumble environment of criminal court. He had the toughest mind I believe I ever encountered. His offices above Majorie’s Drug Store provided easy access for the poor community known as Shrewsbury, that lay between railroad tracks.  As we would say in those days, mostly colored folks “stayed” in Shrewsbury.

For a young lawyer who had jumped into the cold, choppy waters of a single-practitioner law practice, seasoned attorneys like Ronnie who were willing to guide you through the pitfalls of law practice were lifelines.

I had worked in the admiralty section of a prominent law firm in New Orleans, where I received mentoring from senior members of the firm. After serving my obligation to Uncle Sam and working off my law school debt in the oil fields of Venezuela, I decided to open my own practice in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, where I had grown up and had many friends.

In 1959, thirty guys and one gal constituted the entire Jefferson Parish Bar. The lady chose not to attend our annual Bar Association meeting, which allowed us guys to convert the meeting into a smoker where we took turns trying to outdo one another with bawdy jokes. Some senior members of the bar were allowed to gently roast our local judges. Sometime after sloshing down too much whiskey, the roasting became a little more than gentle. After dinner some of us junior members of the bar would drift down to the French Quarter to continue celebrating our membership in such a “prestigious” organization. Ronnie, being a good family man and older chose not join us in this frivolity.

Ronnie always had a special joke prepared for this occasion which he laboriously presented without any hint of shame. He laughed as loud at his own jokes as we did.

As a young lawyer, I didn’t  even know how to confirm a default judgment in court. “Ronnie,” I implored over the phone, “I have to confirm a default tomorrow morning in the 24th Judicial District Court. How do I go about it?”

“I have to be in that court tomorrow. I will meet you there and walk you through it,” Ronnie generously offered his valuable time. Ronnie remained patient and helped me through some murky legal situation which no longer baffled him, but mystified me.

Once, Ronnie saw me in the courthouse halls and issued an invite, “Care to come spend a day next to me in Criminal Court in Orleans Parish? I have to defend a young black man charged with a simple burglary.” As I desperately needed the trial experience, I readily said, “Yes.”

When Ronnie questioned a witness or addressed the judge or jury, his blue eyes darted back and forth behind octagonal shaped, rimless glasses that hung around his large ears on thin gold wires. His rumpled white cotton coat with light blue stripes draped freely over a taught bony frame. His yellow hair lay matted atop his large square head. Ronnie’s pasty, pale face contorted with pain each time he spoke. Neck muscles strained to push themselves out of the courageous lawyer’s tightly buttoned soft white cotton shirt. Blue rivers of blood pulsed up pounding through carotid arteries into the craggy head which contained an over-sized brain capable of remembering most all it encountered.

When Ronnie arose from our table to address the judge or jury, his limbs became uncontrollably unhinged, like some puppet on strings being manipulated by by a drunken puppet master. He would stumble forward, head slanted alternately to one side then the other. His arms flailed the air attempting informative gestures, but only resulting in exaggerated motions that put one in mind of Don Quixote charging a windmill on Rocinante.

In an effort to express himself more forcefully, Ronnie’s hands desperately grasped the air about him in an almost clawlike manner. He pushed guttural words from deep within his muscular frame with the exertion of a weight-lifter, all the while gyrating in all directions across the courtroom floor.

Ronnie’s keen, well-trained mind enabled him to deliver logical, compelling arguments though they came in garbled sounds from a body in perpetual, distracting motion.

On this day in Orleans Parish Criminal Court, the jury appreciated Ronnie’s hard work in preparing for the trial and his courage in presenting the case for his youthful defendant. They acquitted his young client.

As years went on I lost touch with my dear friend. After I went to the bench, one day Ronnie’s son, a fine young attorney, appeared in my court for a case. I invited him to the bench and inquired of his dad’s well being. The son told me, “Judge, you know that dad has come on hard times?”

“No, I was not aware of that. Has his health worsened?” I inquired.

“No, jJudge, the young attorney replied. The bar association disbarred dad from the practice of law three years back.”

“No, I did not know that.” I replied in astonishment. “What in the hell happened to cause that? I will recess court for awhile so we can talk in my chambers,” I suggested.

I recessed court and invited Ronnie’s son into my chambers for some coffee and a chat. The son went on to describe his father’s dilemma in great detail and added that his father was now seeking reinstatement to practice, even at his advanced age. The son explained that Ronnie had come upon hard economic times and he “borrowed” some money from an escrow account to pay bills, thinking that he would soon receive a settlement in a tort case. He would then use these funds to replenish the money in the escrow account. Of course, the settlement in the tort case didn’t come through in time to refund the escrow account before an act of sale where the money was required.

Eventually money from the tort case came forth and all parties were made whole, but the grievous deed had been done. Ronnie suffered the pain and humiliation of disbarment for his lapse of judgment.

“If it will help, I will write a letter on behalf of your father recommending reinstatement to practice law.” I offered the son.

“Dad and I would appreciate that. You know he would be too ashamed to ask you for help.” The young attorney replied.

“Yes, I know that.” I acknowledged.

My letter to the Louisiana Bar Association on behalf of Ronnie in part stated:

“I have known Ronnie Oppenheimer as an attorney and friend for the past thirty years. He has been generous with sharing his wisdom and experience with younger developing members of the bar. I am sure Ronnie knows he has made an inexcusable mistake in judgment. I know for a fact that this one error in judgment, as serious as it was, does not paint the whole picture of of this remarkable man and talented attorney. I believe that Ronnie grieves over this lapse of sound reasoning more than anyone else. Ronnie made all parties whole in this matter as soon as possible. My recommendation is to let this good man return to the profession he has served so well for over forty years.”

A year later, Ronnie’s son informed me that his dad had been reinstated to practice law in Louisiana. But Ronnie left the practice to his son and never practiced law a day after his reinstatement. His health and the years had caught up with him. Ronnie had overcome physical challenges that would have induce despair in most humans to become a first class attorney. Ronnie only desired to live out the few years he had left as a member the profession he cherished.

What is the old saying? “To err is human.”

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