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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Court Jesters : Evidence Proves Judges, Lawyers and Litigants Say the Darndest Things

July 02, 1989|JACK SMITH

IT IS CURIOUS that the American system of justice, on which we count to protect our cherished freedoms, should be the source of so much humor.

Though many of us will never spend a day in court, we think we know how the system works from having read about trials in our newspapers and having watched courtroom scenes in the movies and on TV.

The courtroom drama has been sure-fire; from "Madame X" (1929) and "State's Attorney" (1932) to "The Verdict" and "Legal Eagles," we have been spellbound by the combative tactics of opposing counsel, the intimidation of witnesses, the authoritative intervention of the judge and the unpredictability of the jury.

It doesn't matter that procedure is violated and that judges permit outrageous conduct (as on "L.A. Law") that would never be tolerated in a real court.

It's all great fun, and in the end we enjoy the illusion that, somehow, justice is done.

In real life, though, lawyers sometimes do get out of hand, judges indulge their wit, witnesses commit comical malapropisms and his honor repeatedly has to hammer his gavel to suppress the tittering.

Douglas G. Carnahan, a commissioner in the South Bay Judicial District Municipal Court, has a good ear for courtroom comedy. As he says, "Judges, lawyers and litigants say the darndest things."

Niquie Hutchison of Westlake Village has sent me a collection of Carnahan's "darndest things" from the Los Angeles Daily Journal (the legal newspaper). Among the malapropisms: "This is a very buzzarde case." . . . "I guess I just misinterpatated everything." . . . "It was hard to desiphon what he wrote." . . . "The two officers were disgusting something."

The excuses offered by defendants in traffic cases are sometimes creative: "He pulled me over because of the shape of my car." . . . "I was afraid they'd honk me." . . . "I was speeding because the blue Cadillac in front of me was driving in an erotic manner." . . . "Do you drive an Impala?" "No, I drive a car." . . . "I wasn't speeding. I checked my thermometer."

Witnesses often produce unconscious humor: "May I say something on behalf of my wife? I'm her husband." . . . "Was anything said?" "Nothing legible." . . . "I have three children: a wife and two teen-aged sons."

Prospective jurors can be wily in their attempts to avoid duty in the box: "I can't be a juror in this case because I can't be objectionable."

In my reporting days, I often covered trials. I remember with affection a lawyer named S. S. (Sammy) Hahn, who had a way of innocently taunting opposing counsel. Once when he shouted "I object!" the judge noted that opposing counsel hadn't said anything yet. Sammy said, "He had his mouth open, your honor."

It was long before my time, but Sammy's greatest coup occurred in a lawsuit in which his opponent was a politically powerful lawyer whom everyone in the courtroom respectfully addressed as "Colonel." One day Sammy asked for a recess to prepare some pertinent documents. He appeared before the bench the next day and handed the judge his discharge as a corporal in the U.S. Army in World War I. He turned on his opponent: "I was in the Argonne," he said. "I did not see the colonel there." Sammy demanded that he be addressed as "Corporal Hahn," and thereafter, at the court's direction, he was. (He also won the case.)

More recently we have read of a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles who inquired testily of an attorney, "Are you trying to make a federal case out of this?"

It is also good to be reminded of the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, as quoted in "The Howls of Justice," by Harry T. Shafer and Angie Papadakis:

"Under our constitutional system, courts stand, against any winds that blow, as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are nonconforming victims of prejudice and public excitement."

It is only natural that a byproduct of that weighty function is a laugh now and then. As Carnahan says, "Since the courtroom can be such a dehumanizing place, by looking at the human--humorous--faces of the players . . . we help ourselves to understand it. With understanding comes justice."

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