Most people have an image of attorneys that is formed by news accounts, television stories and movies. Some of the time that image is of a stodgy, conservative person lacking mirth. Of course some TV shows portray my brethren and sisters at the bar as completely over-the-top. These are not the lawyers I have come to know professionally and personally. I appreciate and on occasion envy my friends and even foes at the bar for their wit, spontaneity and ability to be zany in serious situations.
Dean, a short fellow about as tall as he was around, comes to mind. After Japanese attacked the destroyer on which he served, Dean came back from WWII with a metal plate in his head. This may explain some of Dean’s crazy antics before the bench and bar.
Fresh from Law School in the mid 50s and always the opportunist, Dean opened a practice in the Queen and Crescent Building on Camp Street in New Orleans. He specialized in “Immigration Law”. In order to obtain clients, the energetic, enterprising lawyer had large signs painted in various languages announcing the services he offered. Dean personally displayed these signs on the wharfs along the Mississippi River to the crews and passengers of incoming foreign ships. He somehow made a meager living with his “Immigration Practice”.
It came to pass that in the mid 60s, some dubious characters persuaded my boss, the District Attorney of Jefferson Parish, the District Attorney of Jefferson Parish, to hire Dean on as an Assistant District Attorney. Our boss did this against the advice of his other assistants. We knew that Dean the Clown would provide us with plenty of laughter but do little to enhance the professional reputation of our office, which at that time badly needed enhancement.
In those days, all of us assistants managed dockets which included Felony, Misdemeanor and Traffic cases. Just before Christmas, I arrived at Traffic Court to handle my docket–only to learn that the day before Dean had Nolle Prosequied (dismissed) all my Traffic cases. He told the numerous defendants, including many Driving-While-Intoxicated offenders, that this was Bon Marche day and a Christmas present. I doubt that Dean gained any material thing from this devious behavior except the satisfaction of ingratiating himself with the public. Dean had an insatiable need for publicity, good or bad. Needless to say Dean’s actions distressed me, so I reinstated the cases, because he had not sworn the first witness in any case and, therefore, Jeopardy had not attached.
On a less sinister note, Dean, who always conversed in the language of jive that often required translation, could be self-deprecating and conjure up funny pleas when arguing before a judge. Once in closing argument after a civil trial that was obviously going south for him, Dean implored the serious jurist and elderly judge presiding over the trial, “Your honor, I throw myself and my client on the mercy of this astute court and beg that you don’t punish my client for having incompetent counsel”.
In another jury trial where Dean had done bitter battle with a prominent criminal defense attorney, Dean, in his closing argument to the jury argued, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury my worthy opponent, the famous criminal defense attorney, Mr. G. Wray Gill, has reached way down in his extensive legal arsenal and come up with a pop-gun.”
Dean let his mouth overload his butt when New Orleans District Attorney “Big” Jim Garrison initiated his own investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. Dean pretended to know something about some characters in Garrison’s imaginary conspiracy. Dean is now gone to wherever zany attorneys go once they exit stage left, but before his departure Oliver Stone portrayed Dean as a fat, jive-talking attorney in the famous movie JFK. In my opinion, the buffoon Dean was lucky to escape the wrath of the erratic Garrison.
Dean is no longer with us to bring zany antics into the courtroom, but he provided entertainment when he did roam the halls of justice.
Over many years of practice, my friend Bobby Brousard proved himself to be one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Louisiana. Dapper, slight of build, sharp of mind and always prepared, Bobby had a quick pleasant wit. Bobby had dark eyes and black, straight hair always combed neatly back. He had virtually no accent to reveal his Cajun ancestry.
Bobby preferred to practice alone in a small office across the street from the Jefferson Parish Courthouse. By the time I came to know him, he had attained such a reputation as a defense attorney, he accepted only cases where the money was good and up front. He became one of the few financially successful criminal defense attorneys in our area. When he took a few days off practicing law every year, he traveled to the Saint Johns River area of Florida to catch bass.
During the times Bobby and I engaged one another in court, the Louisiana Supreme Court had assigned the crusty old judge J. Bernard Cocke to sit on all criminal cases in our jurisdiction.
Judge Cocke had been the District Attorney for twenty years in Orleans Parish until the public elected him to the Criminal Courts bench, where he presided for another twenty-four years. By the time Cocke came to Jefferson Parish, the whole State Criminal Bar and the Louisiana Supreme Court itself considered Judge Cocke to be the supreme authority on Criminal Law in the state. The rotund judge saw himself as a thespian and acted in Shakespearean plays about town. The role of Falstaff suited him well. Cocke had a bitter sense of sarcastic humor, which he bestowed on prosecutor and defense attorney in equal measure.
By the time Cocke sat on the bench in Jefferson Parish, age and the bad habit of sipping Old Commisky Whiskey from a fruit jar at lunch had caught up with him a bit. He had a tendency to doze off during afternoon sessions.
One sunny May afternoon, Bobby and I were trying a motion to suppress some evidence. The glass-walled courtroom allowed us to visually enjoy the languid spring weather outside. Cocke enjoyed it too much. Not long into Bobby’s presentation, the corpulent, rosy-faced jurist fell fast asleep. His head fell across his black robe. Even spectators in the back of the courtroom could hear the snoring emanating from the bench.
Bobby turned to me and observed, “The judge has fallen asleep.”
“I know that. What do you want me to do about it?” I replied.
“Wake him up.” Bobby implored.
“Hell no. Not me. It is your motion. You wake him up,” I retorted.
Finding it inadvisable to shout at the slumbering jurist, the clever Bobby came up with a solution. He picked up a pile of heavy law books he had brought to Court and dropped them on the table in front of us. Cocke awoke with a jerk and mumbled something to the effect, “And what is your response to that argument, Mr. DA”?
Bobby is no longer with us. The fish in the Saint Johns River are safe and criminals in Jefferson Parish have lost an effective advocate.
Jack, the burly ex-marine who fought in the South Pacific during WWII, found pride in being an arch-segregationist. He counted among his friends Judge Leander Perez, who built special prisons and schools for Blacks in Plaquemines Parish. Judge Perez and his two sons virtually owned Plaquemines Parish. Jack also paid homage to and supported the efforts of Governor George Wallace to deny Blacks access to higher education in Alabama.
Not the sharpest fellow in a courtroom, Jack waddled his two-hundred-fifty pounds around in front of juries groping for words to defend the numerous poor clients, both black and white, he scrounged up in his one-man law practice. He would go to trial only when forced to do so or when he thought he had a “sure thing.” Most of the time he would arrange the best plea bargain he could obtain for his clients. He would hold off entering the plea until his clients’ and relatives and friends could arrange a “fish fry” to raise the money for Jack’s fee. Once Jack received his fee, the the plea of guilty would be entered and Jack’s client would be sent off to jail.
Jack had little empathy for his clients and probably a good bit of disdain for them. On many occasion I would hear him tell a hapless client, “We are going to take this plea because we cannot win this case. You are just to dumb to be a criminal. You should look for some other line of work.” Like his clients were capable of other work.
Jack has joined his segregationist heroes in wherever they go and the Civil Rights movement has at least made strides forward.
I could fill a book with stories of trials in which my friend Ralph Barnett and I did verbal battle. Stocky and still as athletic as when he played basketball for Loyola–despite smoking expensive oval shaped cigarettes–Ralph developed a relationship with the local bail bondsmen, which supplied his with a steady flow of paying clients.
Since Ralph limited himself to criminal defense practice only, he required little in logistical support. He shared office space near the courthouse with his friend Fred, who handled only civil cases. They shared a secretary and confined their library to the few law books absolutely necessary for their work. West Publishing Company made little money off them. In the rare event Ralph saw the necessity to file an appellate brief, he found refuge in the Louisiana Supreme Court library located just across the Mississippi River.
When we had to meet in court, Ralph would stroll in late as usual, except in Judge Cocke’s court where everybody appeared on time. Cocke, a stickler for punctuality, once put an attorney in jail for a few hours for being a few minutes late in his court. Ralph invariably showed up sans books, yellow pads or pens.
On an occasion when we had an important motion to be argued before Cocke, Ralph appeared on time but with nothing in hand. I came armed with law books, pads and pens. When Ralph realized the gravity of the situation and how naked he appeared, he turned to me and observed. “You appear to be well-prepared. I don’t even have any books in front of me. Lend me some of your books so I will not look so bad. I also need a pad and pen.” I discreetly slid some books and supplies over to my friend and long-time legal foe.
I understand Ralph, like most of us of our era, has withdrawn from the battles of the courtroom and now lives with his wife somewhere in Tennessee.
Sometime I see television shows portraying attorneys doing zany things. I think to myself, Even these guys are not having as much fun as I had.