The law may disfavor the absurd, but the only way to avoid the potential for embarrassment when arriving for court in an unfamiliar courthouse is to ask the really basic, seemingly absurd questions. I did not, and one day I looked like an idiot in court.
Think You’ve Learned? Absurd!
Based on experience, you might think that some legal concepts would apply everywhere. As a student attorney and judicial clerk, I spent thousands of hours in criminal court. When I started my solo practice, I had already concluded that it would be absurd to schedule a criminal law court hearing unless there is at least the possibility that the matter can be resolved at the hearing. Makes sense, right? Because if there is one thing courts love, it’s resolving cases.
A month or so after I started as a solo, I got a public defender appointment in a rural county. I was representing a man charged with driving with a suspended license. I spoke to my client before the hearing, learned his version of the facts, and determined that there was no realistic way to defend the allegation. My client was unemployed and was willing to plead guilty if I could argue for no jail time and a reduced fine—his unemployment had led to him falling into arrears on child support, which led to his license being suspended. (Which itself might strike you as absurd, but that’s a rant for another day.)
All Rise for the…Law Clerk?
Court was called into session, which was when I realized that the one judge in this county was not taking the bench—instead it was his law clerk, who was authorized by local rule to take the bench for this type of hearing. After a few minutes of excruciating confusion, I realized to my embarrassment that since there was not a judge on the bench, there was no way to resolve the matter at that hearing. Essentially we were on the record only to enter a not guilty plea and put the matter off for another day. This was how the district dealt with its lack of a second judge.
Swallow Your Pride, and Just Ask
The only way I could have avoided this was to have asked a question something like, “So, what can and cannot happen at this hearing?” That is a question that one might not want to ask, as one might fear that the person hearing it might well think, “I thought you were a lawyer. Instead, you are obviously an ignoramus.”
But you should go ahead and ask anyway. In a way, it takes a smart person to know when to ask a dumb question. If you don’t, an old baseball adage may apply: this game will humble you.