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He Wrote the Book on Legal Humor

October 05, 1987|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months; if it were not for this penalty the jury would never hear the evidence.

--H.L. Mencken

San Diego attorney Charles Sevilla would probably like Art Linkletter.

It was Linkletter, after all, who proved in a classic television program that kids say the darnedest things.

Sevilla now has made it his avocation to demonstrate that lawyers do, too.

The general public knows him best as an appellate attorney for people with serious problems. His clients include Roger Hedgecock, the former mayor rousted from office by a perjury and conspiracy conviction, and Herman Martin, the one-time La Jolla insurance broker fighting a murder rap.

But beneath Sevilla's sober exterior lurks a veritable Pied Piper of pettifoggery.

Legal Inanity

For nearly a decade, it seems, Sevilla has been collecting examples of the most sublimely ridiculous courtroom exchanges involving attorneys, judges, witnesses, defendants and jurors and publishing them--the names deleted to protect the guilty--in magazines circulated mainly to other defense lawyers.

Now, in conjunction with two law professor friends, he is sharing the gem-like moments of legal inanity with a broader public.

Their book, "Disorderly Conduct," has been a surprising success--drawing a rave review from People magazine, getting scooped up by law students and soaring last month to No. 8 on the Chicago Tribune's best-seller list for nonfiction titles. Published early this year by W.W. Norton & Co., it is already in its third printing.

Almost every item in the 171-page book is excerpted verbatim from the transcript of a court proceeding in the United States, Canada or Great Britain. The humor is unrehearsed and unintentional--the sometimes sidesplittingly funny inaptness that the tension and contentiousness of the courtroom can occasionally spawn.

Such as this moment in a criminal case:

Defendant: Judge, I want you to appoint me another lawyer.

Judge: And why is that?

Defendant: Because the ( Public Defender) isn't interested in my case.

Judge (to public defender): Do you have any comments on defendant's motion?

Public defender: I'm sorry, Your Honor. I wasn't listening.

Or this one, recorded during jury selection:

Judge: Is there any reason you could not serve as a juror in this case?

Juror: I don't want to be away from my job that long.

Judge: Can't they do without you at work?

Juror: Yes, but I don't want them to know it.

Or this, when a prosecutor was unusually candid about his prospects in a trial:

District attorney: This matter is here for trial today.

Judge: People ready?

D.A.: Yes, but we move to dismiss in the interest of justice.

Judge: What is the interest of justice?

D.A.: The case sucks.

Sevilla acknowledges that lawyers aren't widely thought of as an especially humorous sort. "Because of the nature of the litigation that lawyers are involved in, I could see where people wouldn't associate the profession with humor," he said last week.

But the ability to laugh, Sevilla insists, is essential for the litigator's well-being.

"A lot of defense attorneys have a terrific sense of humor," he said. "You've got to to survive in an atmosphere so often filled with mustard gas. Without some release from that pressure, it can get to you."

Sometimes, it is judges who lighten the courtroom atmosphere, as in this exchange, drawn from a sentencing hearing and included in the book:

Judge: All right. Any other questions?

Defendant: How can you sentence an innocent man to prison?

Judge: It is part of my job.

Sometimes, it is the witnesses:

Defense counsel: The truth of the matter is that you are not an unbiased, objective witness, isn't it? You, too, were shot in the fracas.

Witness: No, sir. I was shot midway between the fracas and the navel.

And sometimes it is the defendant--like this one, charged with arson, who had missed a previous court appearance:

Judge: Where were you?

Defendant: In the hospital.

Judge: Why?

Defendant: Smoke inhalation.

Co-author Rodney Jones, a former law professor at the University of San Diego who now teaches at the University of Santa Clara Law School, said selecting the anecdotes for inclusion in the book was a painful task.

Jones locked himself in a hotel room with Gerald Uelman, the book's third co-author and dean of the Santa Clara law school, and gave hundreds of candidates a "laughability rating" until they had winnowed the pile down to the very best. Besides the items from Sevilla's magazine columns, they drew on Jones' personal collection and the archives of a Monterey municipal judge.

Apparently, they selected well: Jones' students ask him to autograph copies of the book they've purchased for their fathers or other lawyer friends. And though he expected criticism from stuffed shirts in the profession, the reaction of lawyers has been just the opposite, Jones said.

"They're taking it quite well and enjoying the foibles of their colleagues," he said.

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