Tuesday, December 27, 2005

David Letterman and the Pro Se Court

The story last week about the "restraining order" against David Letterman got all the usual suspects upset. It seems a judge in New Mexico has ordered Mr. Letterman to stop sending subtle signals to a New Mexico viewer (e.g. every time he mentioned "Oprah" he was speaking in code to her). This is a current link to the story at freenewmexican.com. Letterman's lawyers are moving to quash the order, of course.

That's because they never heard of Judge Manny Rissman. I don't know when Judge Rissman went to his reward, but he was an older man 30 years ago or so when he was presiding in the Pro Se Court of Cook County when I heard this story.

Before Judge Judy, before Judge Mathis, before People's Court, there was the Cook County Pro Se Court. Lawyers were not allowed. If a lawyer sought to file an appearance on behalf of a defendant, the case would be transferred from that room to a regular Municipal Court docket. And a lawyer obviously could not file a case in the Pro Se Court. Not unless the lawyer was appearing pro se -- as sometimes happened, according to Judge Rissman.

But the case that reminds me of Letterman's concerned a dentist. He had put a filling in the tooth of some woman and then began broadcasting signals through the filling, scaring the woman half to death, and ruining her health. He was constantly threatening her. At least that's what she said.

So the dentist appeared in court -- these cases were never allowed more than one continuance -- you showed up on the return day specified in the summons, brought your witnesses or your evidence, and argued the case -- and did a slow burn as the plaintiff recited her various complaints about the dentist's secret broadcasts to her filling. Then he really got mad when the judge turned to the dentist, brushed aside his protestations of innocence, and told him how ashamed he should be of this conduct. The dentist had a relatively small amount of money on him -- $50, maybe, no more than $100 -- and Judge Rissman pronounced that he must pay this entire amount over to the woman in satisfaction of the judgment the court then entered against him. As part of the judgment, the judge told the furious dentist, he would be enjoined from ever contacting the plaintiff again, through her fillings or otherwise.

Sputtering, fuming, but still wary of being hit for contempt of court, the dentist turned the money over to the woman as the judge leaned forward over the bench and watched.

Then he turned his attention to the plaintiff. He said to her, "You've seen how we've punished this man for what he did to you, right?" She nodded. "He's paid his fine to you and I've told him he must never, ever contact you again. And I believe he will follow my order, because he never wants to be in trouble like this again." She nodded agreement. "But, " said Judge Rissman, "fair is fair. He can not contact you. Now you must never contact him again. You can't call him, you can't go to his office, you can't go anywhere near him. Do you understand?" She nodded again and left the courtroom happily.

The dentist left, too, looking like a fish who'd been stunned by a mallet.

But the dentist came back to court again a week later, with his checkbook out and ready. "Judge," he asked, "what's your favorite charity? I'd like to make a donation on your behalf for what you did for me in that case."

It seems this woman had been constantly calling the dentist for weeks before she took him to court. Day and night. Night and day. She came to his office. She was scaring his patients. But after her victory in court, the calling stopped. She obeyed the court's order. It took a couple of days for the dentist to calm down after the court date, he admitted, but he began to take note of the blissful silence -- and he realized what Judge Rissman had done for him.

And what the New Mexico judge may have done for David Letterman. If his well-paid lawyers don't screw it up....

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