I had just graduated from law school and was in Chicago studying for the Bar Exam that I was scheduled to take at the end of summer. Somewhere in the near South Side I made a rolling stop or ran a red light or forgot to use the turn signal in my VW bug and got a ticket. I don't really remember what I did. I just remember that I could pay a fine before a certain date or go to court.
I was guilty. I remember that too. And I had every intention of pleading guilty. But right then my bank account had next to nothing in it and I wanted to hold on to whatever I had a little longer. I decided to go to court.
I could get a first hand look at the Chicago court system and have a legitimate reason for missing another day of the Bar Exam Review Class, which I had started skipping in favor of roaming around Chicago. "Win win," I thought.
My court date arrived and I found myself in a courtroom with about 100 other slackers and traffic violators, a few attorneys, and the dozen or so police officers who had caught us and were ready to testify if needed. It was hot; I was sweaty; and a back row seat in the air conditioned comfort of the bar review class was looking a little better.
The long procession of people pleading guilty reinforced my mistake. It was all very boring and fell far short of my expectations of trial work. It wasn't teaching me much about the court system other than that I had some long days ahead.
My name was finally called.
I walked up in front of the judge, who looked at my file, saw that I didn't have a local address, and asked what I was doing in Chicago.
"I'm here to take the Bar Exam, Your Honor."
"You're an attorney?" he asked, looking up.
"Not quite yet."
"Take a seat," he ordered.
And so I sat, not sure what was going on, but feeling a lot like I had been sent to sit outside of the junior high principal's office waitng for my punishment. Not at all like I was a month away from being a licensed attorney.
I watched the judge dispose of some more cases. By the time he reached the bottom of the stack of files, there were only a dozen or so people and a few police officers left in the courtoom. My file was sitting off to the side.
The judge looked up, looked around and, in a voice louder than needed for the small crowd, ordered everyone to, "Clear the courtroom!"
I got up and stepped towards the door, a little mad that I'd be coming back in the afternoon, when I heard someone say, "Not you!"
When I turned around, the judge was pointing at me. "You sit," he bellowed.
And so I sat, in front of the principal's door again. Waiting.
The judge looked over at the police officers, who had remained seated in the jury box, assuming the order wasn't meant for them. With a wave of his hand, he sent them out the side door.
There were now four people in a courtroom built to hold several hundred. The judge, a bailiff, a court clerk, and me. The judge sent the baliff out.
I was getting smaller by the minute. The tall ceiling, dark wood paneling, and lack of air conditioning were closing in on me. The whirling of the ceiling fans that did little to cool the immense room was the only sound. "Stupid, stupid, stupid...." they said with each rotation
"I should have paid the fine," I think.
The judge reached for my file, called my case by name and docket number, and motioned for me to approach. When I was standing in front of him, with a seriousness that behooved the robe and a full courtroom, he asked me if I wanted an immediate bench trial.
I went for honesty. "Well, Your Honor, actually I just wanted to hold on to...."
He held his hand up to stop me, looked around the empty courtroom and, in a booming voice, asked,"Is the arresting officer present?''
I found myself looking around too, although no one was there.
"Hmm? I guess not," the judge said. "Case dismissed. You're free to go."
I wasn't at all sure what had just happened. When I looked at the judge, he gave the same little wave with the back of his hand that sent the police officers out the door.
I turned and headed out. As I reached the door a voice behind me wished me luck.
I learned something that day.
I was pretty sure it wouldn't be on the Bar Exam.