It got pretty exciting at the Courthouse last Thursday evening. Wait, strike that! Exciting is too puny a term for the breathtaking exhilaration whistling through the ancient halls of justice. The sense of anticipation was positively electric around the Courthouse Thursday afternoon as all the lawyers arrived and bustled around in their bonaroos, beaming with aloof pride to be part of the pageantry that attends a ceremony of this kind.
This reporter was not issued an invitation and my press pass expired back in ’09, but I’m going to gate crash, if the bailiffs don’t lay me by the heels, and try to give the readers a glimpse, at least, of all the glamour, glitz, and glory everyone seems to be snapping and sparking with as the crowds gather, wondering what on Earth could be going on – “Isn’t the Emerald Cup in Sonoma County,” one passerby asked? “What’s all the fuss?”
“A judge is about to be sworn in,” I answered.
No negative energy was detectable in the neon buzz pulsating from glowing faces, snapping eyes and yes, even the brightly colored scarves and skirts seemed to be positively crackling with static electricity, as so many new lawyers come crawling out of the woodwork. There’s some civil law litigants who probably had to ask directions to the courthouse since they spend their lives in back office cubicles plowing through snowdrifts of legal pages and only see the sun, briefly, once a year, in December and January. There’s Colin Morrow, from Carter Sears office, “Good morrow to you, counselor, nice looking suntan,” covering my shock from his tomb-like pallor, and what a smart new shirt you’re wearing. Who’s this? Zach Stephens you say? From the law office kitty-corner to the courthouse on State Street and Standley? My God! He’s a lawyer working this close to the center of the universe and I have never seen him? The obscurity they keep you guys buried under amazes the awesome. Oh, the venerable Pano Stephens’ son? Really? “Nice suit, Zach.”
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In the evening all the seats were taken in Department E, with the crowd flooding back into the hallway, through the double doors. A bailiff was suggesting people go sit in the jury box, perhaps somewhat mischievously, since that is where the quorum of judges were about to file into, and wouldn’t you feel such a conspicuous fool when all those robes settled around you? Department E is the largest courtroom, the one with the 30-foot ceilings, and sound-deadening suspended tiles, the grandeur of lost dignity, it seems, when Justice was perhaps more dignified, but nowadays, Department E is used pretty much exclusively for the financial concerns of the well to do: Civil Court, under the auspices and direction of The Honorable Jeanine Nadel, these past few years.
Then… There she comes, her platinum helmet-hairstyle, the tres au-naturale in a “neutral” color as she strode in wearing a flouncy houndstooth kilt, the kind of riding boots a swashbuckler would envy, and her black robe over her arm.
Next came Judge John Behnke. Yes, that’s a sentence. He’s the presiding judge of the Mendocino County Superior Court and – modest though he is – we all bow to his calm sapience in our wee, woebegotten community. For the past year Behnke has presided in a special capacity, recently vacated by the retiring Judge Richard Henderson. Hot on the retirement tracks of Judge David Nelson, in this seemingly mad rush to get out before the… What?
Well, anyone who’s been in Mendo long enough to sober up and have a look around, knows all the players, the few owners and, correct me if I’m mistaken, the score — you can tell he’s about to step down from that exalted position – and even those of us who haven’t gone on the wagon in this Puritanical social climate, can tell you he is stepping down, because he told us so.
Judge Behnke is nothing if not modest. His humble manner would make Socrates look like a drunken braggart escaped from some pirate’s ship brig. The clothes make the man, true enough, but a man may choose, to some limited extent, how he presents himself in the role as a judge. And Judge Behnke presents himself in a modest fashion, shirt and tie, slacks and loafers. I’ve never seen him in a suit coat. But for this occasion he was wearing a crisp new necktie.
Or, if the old-fashioned male neuter English form offends you, it was actually The Right Honorable Ann Moorman, presiding over this ceremony. She wore a white silk peasant’s blouse under her black robe, which, since everybody knew where she was going afterwards (The Saturday Afternoon Club), a block away, the sun gone over the hill, she walked in just before I got there.
I was itching to ask about the up-coming courtroom assignments, but it is less than a convenient place to ask delicate questions about top-secret agendas in the cocktail party atmosphere of a judicial coronation.
Unfortunately, the bartender was building a nest in a judge’s ear, and soon I glided over to the buffet tables, where the chaffing dishes and trepanning saws were laid out. There were some poisonously delicious things which were snapped-up wholesale – what, with all the underpaid courthouse flunkies who haven’t been able to afford a downtown lunch since 2013? – being turned loose on a, dare we say frugal layout? Keep in mind that the last few judge gigs have been at the pleasure and expense of their Honors, Keith Faulder (rumor has it he took a pay cut to wear the robe) and Ann Moorman (who had her reception at the Starr Center, an extravaganza we haven’t enjoyed since (or before?)
Hold your breath everybody: Her she comes! It's Her Honor, Carly Dolan. Wrapped in a thrifty yard of silk, the color a slapdash mix of royal blue and purple. An artful travesty of a uniform on top, with the bands from the shoulders slanting across her chest like chevrons, it was really quite martial in effect and at the same time, something out of a Bogart-Hepburn movie.
There was no microphone, and as I complained earlier, nobody outside of the inner circle could hear what-all… But they all knew how to play their parts and when the ripple of a giggle came from the center of the elect, it spread like a yawn, but in the opposite context, and everyone at once stopped chatting to join in the laughter they hadn’t heard the pebble of wit plop into the fountain of mirth.