Bailiffs

BAILIFFS

Black’s Law Dictionary defines these loyal folks as follows, “a keeper, protector, or guardian”. This aptly describes the bailiffs that protected and guarded me and my staff for a quarter of a century.

Court bailiffs have an unwritten code that compels them to go far beyond the formal job they hired on for. This code is similar to that of the Secret Service that protects the President and his family. Bailiffs feel obligated to protect “Their Judge” from all harm, remain discrete about his personal habits, and to provide for his convenience whenever possible. Should something bad befall “Their Judge”, they could not forgive themselves and they would be ridiculed by their fellow bailiffs.

In my jurisdiction the local Sheriff employed the bailiffs assigned to our courts. I always found it made good sense to stay on the good side of the Sheriff so we could agree on who would be assigned to my court. Frequently, the bailiffs assigned to our courts would be older Deputy Sheriff’s who had served many years in the field. What they may have lacked in the way of physical agility in their later years, they made up for in experience. They could spot trouble coming before it happened. Sometime I would get a young guy who could be excitable and rambunctious.

Such was the case with Kevin. Young, tall, sinewy, blue eyed, blond-haired and self assured Kevin loved his job. He assured me that my concern about him wearing his weapon in court was unfounded, because he had a special holster that, according to him and his boss the Sheriff, prevented anyone but him from retrieving the 9 mm semi- automatic he carried in his secure, high tech holster.

Kevin told the truth. When the six-foot, two hundred pound eighteen-year-old African American kid built like an oak tree went berserk in my court room, he didn’t get Kevin’s weapon out of the holster. He just tore the whole damn holster, gun and all, off Kevin’s wide black belt. Kevin wrestled with the kid. I reached for the long “Billy Club” under my bench while I pressed the concealed distress button under my bench. More deputies arrived in seconds and the young man was finally subdued, but for a brief time the angry kid was “boss of the courtroom.”

Al, my first bailiff, on the other hand had attained the age to retire from the Sheriff’s Department. Although elder, Al remained alert and aware of things going on about him. I felt secure with Al.

Slight of build and short of stature, Al’s neatly combed dark black hair showed  streaks of gray. He spoke in the brogue of Westwego, the little fishing village from which he hailed. Al always wore immaculately pressed inexpensive dark blue suits, and neck ties off K-Mart racks. He kept his 38 snub nosed colt holstered and concealed on his left hip. Al, a man of very few words mostly gave directions to those entering the courtroom with hand gestures.

None of us knew that Mark. the sixteen-year-old before me would throw a woolly bugger tantrum when I sentenced him to serve time at the Louisiana Training Institute, ( the euphemism for juvenile prison ). He had been severely depressed during the hearing that led up to the sentencing. But, boom, Mark, a pale, skinny kid about Al’s height exploded when he heard the sentence. He knocked Al, to the floor, sprinted out the door and reached the stairwell where he commenced to descend from the fifth floor that housed my courtroom.

Sam Stevens, the red-headed court appointed attorney who represented Mark followed in close pursuit. I checked Al, who had a heart condition and appeared a bit ashen to see if he was in need of medical assistance and to ascertain if Mark had gotten his gun. Al said he was OK and still had his weapon. I followed behind Sam, black robes flapping in the breeze, as we all chased Mark around and around down the stairwell.

When Mark reached the landing on the second floor, he ran into Bailiff Jay Hecker coming up the stairs. Mark slid off Jay into the men’s room at that level, broke the mirror and slashed both his wrist before Jay could get to him. When Sam and I arrived seconds later, Mark was squirting blood all over the walls of the little bathroom.

Jay and the medics got things under control and bandaged Mark with compression bandages on both wrists. As they led him to a waiting ambulance through the public reception area of the Courthouse, Mark cussed us all with imaginative, explicit language. I could only cheer him on telling him, “That a boy Mark. Give us hell. At least you ain’t depressed any more.” I sometimes wonder if Mark is still with us and how he is getting along.

Jay Hecker acted as my bailiff on a few occasions when the Louisiana Supreme Court sent me to sit in another court, to replace judges who had become ill or been sent to prison. But, Jay served Judge Fred Bowes as bailiff on the occasion a prisoner grabbed Jay’s 38 caliber revolver from his holster. As the story goes, Judge Bowes looked like Zorro, black robes flowing, when he swiftly departed the bench for the safety of his chambers.

The prisoner, despite the fact that he remained shackled to the other prisoners on what we referred to as the “Daisy Chain”, cranked the hammer back on Jay’s ancient police special and assumed full control of the crowded courtroom.

Wiley Beavers, an ex-Green Beret,Viet Nam veteran and attorney happened to be in Bowe’s courtroom that day. Raised in Mississippi, Wiley had been been familiar with guns all his life. He had represented children in my court for years. Wiley, a charming fellow with wavy prematurely grey hair, cold blue eyes that never blinked, stood about five-foot-ten inches tall. His taut body resembled the lean rodeo riders of old. Wiley owned and knew how to expertly use any firearm manufactured in the United States and most of the weapons produced elsewhere in the world. An avid hunter, Wiley supplied much of the meat for the annual Wild Game Dinner held in Westwego each year where public officials of all parties and their friends gather to drink and eat in a spirit of detente.

Wiley acted decisively and saved the day. He slipped up behind the prisoner, then simultaneously grabbed the man’s throat with right hand while wedging the palm of his left hand between the cocked hammer and frame of the revolver thus rendering the weapon useless.

It was all Al, my young secretary, little Vickie, and I could do to restrain the twenty- something, strong woman who went bananas in my court. Among other mental conditions, this feisty woman had a history of epilepsy. When she heard a decision I made announced in court, she commenced to run full force into the plate glass windows that served as exterior walls on the fifth floor of our modern Courthouse. Thud, she threw her full body against the pale green glass, but she was unable to break through the strong material.

Al grabbed her and wrestled her to the floor. where she began banging her head against   the hard vinyl tiled surface. While Al got his cuffs on her, I yelled to Vicki to get a pillow to put under her head and call the Gretna Police for assistance. By now she flopped around on the floor like a fish just caught and dropped on the deck of a boat. All three of us worked at restraining the distraught woman to prevent her from causing herself further injury.

By the time the Gretna cop ran through the door to the courtroom, we had pretty good control of the upper portion of the woman’s body, but she proved agile enough to raise both of her legs from the hips up and catch the unsuspecting cop squarely in the groin with her feet. He doubled over in pain, but his partner successfully completed the arrest and took custody of the disturbed person.

For some time after, Al, Vickie and I told the story of how the woman tried to jump through the glass wall.

Kelly was my bailiff when Joe Greffer called to tell me “Tom there is a guy out on the streets who wants to kill you”, I took it seriously. Joe and I had served together as Assistant DAs for a number of years. Laid back  and easy going, Joe did not engage in exaggerations.

I responded to Joe, “If you felt the need to warn me, I know the threat is serious. But is he capable of carrying out the threat?”

Joe said, “We just took a loaded 38 away from him  today”. Joe filled me in about the young man who had a beef with me because I had to terminate his parental rights in an adoption hearing. Joe informed me that the young man had worked in the Clerk of Court’s Office before being sent to Viet Nam, where he experimented with too many dangerous drugs–causing serious brain damage. Upon returning home, he just wandered the streets as a derelict, unable to care for himself or his wife and child.

Kelly, a stout grey-haired man had retired as a deputy sheriff with many years of experience on the road. I brought Kelly, and my secretary Regina in my office and told them all of the details Joe had given me about this potential threat. We agreed that I should keep my Smith and Wesson 9 mm semi-automatic in my office desk.

Sure enough, one busy morning while I was on the bench hearing cases,  my secretary Regina, came in the back door to the courtroom and started tugging on my robe excitedly, saying, “Judge, McGee, Mr. Foushion, be here.”

“What are you talking about Regina? I am in the middle of a trial. Who is Mr. Foushion?” I inquired.

“You know, he the man who want to kill you. He be carrying a brown paper bag,” she responded with a look of dread in her wide brown eyes.

I motioned for Kelly and whispered to him the situation we had and instructed him to get all our staff in my chambers. When all were safe in my chambers, I instructed Regina to call for the local Gretna police as I retrieved the 9 mm and dropped a round in the chamber. Because I had not had the opportunity to explain the situation to all the staff, Brenda, my blond-haired, blue-eyed law clerk, who continued to fly for Delta Airlines as a flight attendant on weekends, looked startled to see her judge toting a gun.

I instructed Kelly to go one way in our halls and I went the other but, on this occasion, the young disturbed man left the premises without incident. Some months later, he returned and lefty a scribbled note with our receptionist asking “How would Judge McGee like having his daughter taken from him?”

I had enough of this behavior, so after court adjourned I had the Gretna police bring the disturbed fellow to my empty courtroom where I talked to him alone. I explained to him his behavior had to stop. I emphasized that he had been fully heard at trial, that his case was concluded and he must get on with his life. We spoke freely with one another. He became emotional and cried. I never heard from him again after that discussion.

I just saw Ronnie, my last bailiff, who protected me and my staff for twelve years, at the annual Wild Game Dinner, which I had not attended in many years. We had time to reminisce about old times. He continues to act as bailiff for my successor, Judge Jansen, but says he has had enough and will hang it up after she retires.

Quiet, efficient, dapper and devoted to his duties, nothing got by Ronnie. He handled the hoards that came to our court daily with firm authority, always remaining polite even to the most unruly persons. If he thought we were going to have a problem, he would discretely approach my bench and warn me, but them assure me, “But I have it under control, Judge.”

Ronnie’s appearance and assured, but polite, manners let the public and attorneys know there would be no horseplay in his courtroom. Compact of build, Ronnie moved swiftly and gracefully like a cat, bringing people in and out of court in and orderly manner. His ink black hair and mustache always remained perfectly coifed. He spoke softly but with conviction as his coal black eyes engaged you without straying.

Ronnie prevented many situations from becoming disasters during the dozen years he cared for me and my staff. Ronnie felt he should not only see to my physical safety, he felt obligated to protect me from rebuke.

When, Mr. Boudreaux, the young attorney from New Orleans became dismayed by a ruling I had made against his client and muttered the words “Kangaroo Court” as he exited the courtroom, Ronnie, ever alert to all about him, heard the disdainful phrase. Ronnie immediately reported the disrespectful remark to me.

I requested that Ronnie bring Mr. Boudreaux back into the courtroom and informed him that I had not personally heard the words “Kangaroo Court,” otherwise he would be on his way to jail for contempt. I went on to tell Mr. Boudreaux, “I know you are new to ‘Kangaroo Court’, but this is the way we do things in ‘Kangaroo Court.’”

The young attempted to protest, “But Your Honor, I was just upset. I did not mean anything about it.”

“Well I understand, Mr. Boudreaux, but you have another hearing here in ’Kangaroo Court’ in six weeks, at which time we will have another lesson on the rules of “Kangaroo Court”.

When the young attorney appeared before me in six weeks I greeted him. “Mr. Boudreaux welcome back to ‘Kangaroo Court.’”

“Your Honor, I apologize. I don’t know what else to say,” he offered.

“Well let’s just get along with your case here in ‘Kangaroo Court’ and the ‘Kangaroo Judge’ will decide your case”, I responded.

When one intrusts his well being to another, you get to know that person in a special way. I miss the relationships I have had with my bailiffs and in some way feel I have betrayed them by moving off to distant Paradise.

I have invited some of them to visit, but they are too busy protecting new judges.

Judge Tom in the courtroom

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One Response to Bailiffs

  1. Celeste Bowes says:

    Judge tom, thank you for writing the story about judge Bowes. He was my grandfather. He never talked about work much or maybe I just didn’t pay attention because I didn’t really understand back then. I had heard bits and pieces of that story before but you painted such a picture with your words. I can totally picture him running like Zoro.
    If you have any other stories about him to share, I’m all ears!

    Thank you!
    Celeste Bowes

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