A Fine Day in Court
Written by Elise Stubbe
It is a truth universally acknowledged that all children are lawyers. I have three such children ages 12, 10, and 6, and today, of all days, I had to take them to court.
Like any disaster movie, the day started out normally enough. My husband left on a business trip to a state far away and I was facing the last day of the bench trial of my client Louisa Martin, who was charged with murdering her husband. I had a lot on my plate.
Of course, the kids had the day off from school so that their long-suffering teachers could have an in-service. I had planned ahead, though, and lined up Chloe, the high school junior from down the street, to babysit.
Chloe was due at 8 sharp. At 8:10 I was still waiting. At 8:11, my phone rang and my heart sank as I saw Chloe’s name pop up on the caller ID.
I answered, “Hi Chloe,” but she interrupted me saying, “Oh, my God, Mrs. Fine, I am so sick! Like I cannot even get out of bed. I’m pretty sure I’m dying but do you want me to come over anyway?”
I screeched into the phone, “Chloe?! Why didn’t you call me last night?”
Chloe indignantly replied, “Well, I felt fine last night! It’s just this morning that I feel like death. You can ask my mom. She thinks it’s the stomach flu.”
No!” I said, “I don’t want to ask your mother, and I don’t care about whatever communicable disease you might have. Please do not come over or even think about sharing your plague with us.”
Chloe huffed, because I refused her offer to infect the family—“Fine, Mrs. Fine. My mom will be happy to let you know if I die!”—and hung up.
I put my phone down watching the day fall apart. I had to be in court by 9 a.m. and now I had to figure out what to do with three children. There was no one I could ask this last minute, and I knew my husband’s plane had already taken off.
There was no other option. I had to take my children to court with me. I cursed wretchedly and then headed upstairs to rouse the children.
I banged on the doors of Joan, my 12-year-old, and Theo, my 10-year-old, yelling that they needed to get up: “This is not a drill! You need to get dressed now and come downstairs in five minutes!” Next, I went to Charlotte’s room, and said gently but firmly to the 6-year-old, “Time to get up sweet girl, you need to come with me to work today.”
Charlotte, snuggled in her bed, opened one eye, and simply said, “No.”
“Come on, honey,” I said, “I need you to help me today in court because Chloe is sick and none of you can stay home by yourselves all day. I promise you can have ice cream for lunch.”
My bribe worked and she bounded out of bed to get dressed. Meanwhile, I could hear Joan and Theo arguing in the bathroom. I popped my head in and said, “No time, people, you are coming with me to court today because Chloe is sick and I need both of you to keep an eye on Charlotte.”
They turned mutinous stares in my direction but seeing my face understood that this was a directive and got moving.
We were in the car in record time. In between mouthfuls of breakfast and while talking over each other, they peppered me with questions about Chloe’s symptoms, where the court was, and just how boring was the day going to be.
I parked and ushered them to the entrance of the Bexar County Family Justice Center. Joan and Theo were thoroughly unimpressed, but Charlotte was enchanted by the giant façade.
We hustled through security which took twice as long because Charlotte had to interrogate the security guard about his uniform and if he had ever had to shoot his gun.
I had to meet with Mrs. Martin before court adjourned so I sat the children on one of the long benches outside of the courtroom with strict instructions to not talk to strangers, not wander, and above all, not be too loud. When I joined Mrs. Martin in the small conference room, I saw that she looked stoic but resigned. The trial had not gone well so far despite the lack of a body. The prosecutor was putting all his chips on motive and opportunity both of which she had in spades. She knew her husband was cheating on her and she had told at least one friend that if she caught him in the act, she would kill him. It did not help that there were droplets of his blood found in the kitchen and she had no alibi.
I did my best to cheer her up, which included not mentioning that my children would be in the courtroom, and pointed out that the police found no traces of blood anywhere else in the house or on her clothes. She smiled wanly and I left.
I found the children where I had left them, steered them into the courtroom and installed them in the very last row near the doors.
“Okay,” I said in my best mom means business tone, “I need to sit up at the desk on the left with Mrs. Martin who is my client. You cannot ask me questions or bother me in any way, got it?”
They all nodded solemnly, which I hoped was because they respected my job as a lawyer and appreciated my juggling act but I doubted this.
Judge Henry entered the room looking every inch the patrician jurist. He was also sharp as a tack and immediately asked his bailiff about the three children sitting in the back row. I asked to approach the bench, and when he nodded, I said, “Your honor, those are my children. I had to bring them to work today because school is out, my babysitter called in sick this morning, and my husband is on a plane.”
Judge Henry eyed me seriously and said, “Counsel, I was not aware that this was Bring Your Kids to Work Day.”
“I know, your honor,” I said, “but, I have no other option and I did not want to waste the court’s time by asking for a continuance since this should be the last day of the trial.”
My appeal to his love of time management worked. He harrumphed but said, “Fine, but if they cause any disruption, they will have to go out in the hall.”
“Yes, your honor, thank you. I have already explained to them how to behave here.”
“Good,” he said, “you may proceed.” I gave my closing arguments with what I thought was a good summation of the numerous holes in the prosecution’s case.
Then, it was the turn of prosecutor, Joe Norcross. He started by placing a large photograph of Jack Martin, Louisa’s husband, on an easel that was viewable by the gallery and the judge.
Almost immediately, a small voice in the back piped up and said, “Objection!” I froze. It was Charlotte. Slowly, I turned to look at her and saw that she had her hand up as if she had a question.
Judge Henry immediately banged his gavel and said, “What? Who is objecting?”
I began to open my mouth when Charlotte said, “Sir, I know that man.” My jaw dropped.
Judge Henry looking both intrigued and exasperated, said, “Mrs. Fine, can you please find out what is going on while I call a brief recess?”
I said, “Of course, your honor,” and ran to Charlotte. “Charlotte! What the hell?! You know you aren’t supposed to say anything!”
“But mommy,” Charlotte said in her most aggrieved tone, “that’s Mr. Bert, my bus driver!”
“You have got to be kidding me,” I said. “That is not your bus driver!”
“Yes, it is!” she said, thrusting her chin out for emphasis. At that minute, Judge Henry reappeared and called me to the bench. “Mrs. Fine, is everything under control?”
I asked to approach the bench and motioned for Mr. Norcross to join us. “Ah, your honor,” I began, “my daughter is adamant that Mr. Martin is actually her bus driver, Mr. Bert.”
Judge Henry stared at me in confusion and then looked at Charlotte and back to me. “Bring her up here, please.”
I motioned to Charlotte to come up to the bench and picked her up so she could see the judge.
“Young lady,” Judge Henry intoned in his best serious voice, “your mother tells me that you know that man there,” he said pointing to the picture of Mr. Martin.
“Yes, sir, he is my bus driver, Mr. Bert.”
“I see,” said the judge. “When did Mr. Bert start driving your bus route?”
“Um, let me think,” Charlotte said tapping her finger to her chin relishing the attention. “It was right after I got my pet hamster, Robbie. Do you know he loves carrots?”
“Yes,” said Judge Henry, “can you remember the date you got Robbie?”
“Sure,” said Charlotte, “it was on my birthday, November 14.” This also happened to be the day that Mr. Martin disappeared.
“Interesting,” said Judge Henry. “Ms. Fine what is your bus number and where do you go to school?” She gave him the information and then Judge Henry said, “You may return to your seat. Please keep quiet while I discuss this with your mother and Mr. Norcross.”
Charlotte was annoyed at being dismissed, but I whispered “ice cream” in her ear and she perked up.
Judge Henry instructed the bailiff to call the school to get a photo identification of Mr. Bert. We took a short recess. When we returned, Judge Henry holding the photo said, “Counsel, you will see that the resemblance between Mr. Martin and Mr. Bert is uncanny to say the least. I would like to send a sheriff’s deputy to find Mr. Bert and bring him to court. Is there any objection?”
I vigorously shook my head, and Mr. Norcross shrugged knowing he didn’t have much leg to stand on to object.
An hour later, Mr. Bert was escorted into the courtroom. Immediately, Mrs. Martin began screaming, “Jack! Is that you?! Where have you been?!”
Mr. Bert/Mr. Martin looked utterly gobsmacked since apparently he was not told of the reason for his summons. He immediately tried to sneak out of the court, but the sheriff ’s deputy hauled him before Judge Henry.
“So,” Judge Henry said looking very pleased with himself, “Mr. Martin, I see.”
Mr. Martin/Mr. Bert said, “Your honor, you have the wrong man. I’m Bert Higgins.”
Judge Henry said, “I really dislike lying, Mr. Martin, especially since I also had the school send over your fingerprints from your background check and, lo and behold, they match your fingerprints taken last year when you were arrested for urinating on the grounds of the Alamo,” he said distastefully. “Mr. Martin, why? Why did you frame your wife for a murder that never happened and then let her go to trial?”
“Well,” Mr. Martin said, “she”—pointing at Mrs. Martin— “was going to divorce me and take all my money. I figured if I framed her for my murder, she wouldn’t get anything, not even my life insurance. And I would have gotten away with it, too!”
Judge Henry looked at him critically and then shook his head. “Bailiff, take this man into custody.” He then turned to Mrs. Martin, “Ma’am, you are free to go as you were only charged with the murder of Mr. Martin, which obviously did not occur.”
Mrs. Martin, now weeping with relief, hugged me. “You owe that child as much ice cream as she can eat!”
I looked over at Charlotte who was beaming and already counting out the flavors she was going to get. TBJ
ELISE STUBBE is of counsel to the firm of Kaplan Levenson, practicing mainly in the areas of trademark and copyright as well as general litigation. She lives in San Antonio with her husband and two children.