In the rural Kansas counties, the District Judge will travel to the small counties in the district usually once a month. Routine business is handled on a “docket” where the Judge will call the docket, case by case, and the lawyers will inform the judge of the status of the case. Minor hearings might also be held. A group of local attorneys will cylce through the cases and some may be called on a half dozen cases in one docket. They know each other and the Judge very well. The case might be a criminal case, a divorce case or a collection case. This is what docket day looks like for the Country Lawyer…
It was docket day and I was running late. I took the stairs and reached the 3rd floor of the old Courthouse a little out of breath. I saw opposing counsel across the hall and he let me know that there was no hurry because the Judge was on a conference call.
I went into the Courtroom and saw the local attorneys seated on a bench in front of the bar visiting and waiting for their cases to be called. “The Bar” is a swinging 1/2 door in the old courthouses. Attorneys are allowed inside the bar and the public is outside in the gallery. Parties pass through the bar with their lawyers when their cases are called.
I nodded to several of the lawyers but took a seat in the audience. A friend beckoned to me and said, “Don’t be shy, come up here with the rest of us!” And then she laughed. “I said, oh, no, you guys are too mean for me!” and stayed where I was.
I looked to my right and the deputy sheriff nodded a greeting to me. To his right, a young man in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs leaned over and asked, “Are you a lawyer? I need one.” I said, “Sorry, friend, not in the market. Hang on, the judge will probably appoint you one.” Disappointed, he sat back.
The deputy looked at me and chuckled. Then piped up, “He’s gone through all the lawyers here today. Guess he thought he’d try someone new.” From the back of the Courtroom another young man was waving to get my attention. He walked up and reminded me that I had represented him years ago in a terrible car accident. I gripped his hand and asked him how he was doing. He grinned a toothless grin and I quickly knew that he had not kicked the Meth habit that had made his good case a mediocre one.
Now the judge arrived, with the clerk of the Court in tow. On his desk were about 30 files of cases to be heard that day.
The Judge, a former prosecutor, began to work through the cases. His approach was simple. He was courteous, direct and in charge. He was in favor of practical solutions and he was in favor of disposing of as much business as he could this afternoon. The work was done by cooperation.
During the next two hours, the parties worked through their cases. Need a lawyer? One was appointed. No, you don’t get to pick and choose. Want a divorce? One was granted.
“Why don’t you two lawyers go out in the hallway and settle this,” the judge said. They did so and five minutes later the case had settled.
“What’s next?” the Judge asked. The clerk announced a Protection from abuse case. A middle aged woman came forward and explained that her ex-husband wouldn’t leave her alone. Continually drove by her house and would call and hang up the phone. “Is he present?” the Judge asked. “I’m here Judge,” a voice said. “Then come forward and be heard,” the Judge said, still polite but dialed up a notch. “What about it?” he asked and from his tone we gathered he knew this man. “No way, Judge. SHE won’t leave ME alone!” he bellowed. And with that, we all knew he was guilty. All eyes were on the Judge now, “Well then, since you aren’t doing anything, do you mind if I order you to leave her alone?” The Judge asked kindly. “No, I guess not,” the man said. “Then that’s what I’m going to do. And just remember that if you violate this order, you are going to jail.”
“What’s next?” the Judge asked.
And so it went on, probate orders were signed, and judgments were rendered on unpaid bills. Little cases and some big cases. Somewhere along the line my business was taken care of too. Two hours had flown by. And somehow it all got done. In the course of those two hours we saw a cross-section of our rural life. The drugs and the crime but also the decency. We saw a group of lawyers and a judge trying to work it all out. And largely succeeding. No courtroom drama this afternoon. Nothing for Nancy Grace to sink her teeth into. Just docket day in Western Kansas.