The judge and the law student

Many years ago while sitting in the old Dorchester District Court I had a confrontation with a young law student who went on to become one of the best criminal defense lawyers in the state.

I was presiding in a busy session trying to overcome the usual inertia that develops as you try to move cases through the system. This involved calling a list of cases to determine who was present and what cases were ready for trial or plea.

As we plodded through the list, paging defendants and lawyers, I sent a court officer into the hall to try to find a student-defender and his client. The court officer returned to the session and informed me they were in the upstairs corridor and that he had told them to report to the courtroom, but his request was ignored.

I instructed the court officer to return and tell the student-defender that I would fine him $100 for every minute he kept me waiting. In a couple of minutes the court officer returned, looking embarrassed. I asked him where the young man was. He said he was still upstairs talking to this client.

I asked: “Did you tell him what I said?” The court officer said yes and when I asked what the reply was, he said the young man told him to “tell him [me] to keep the clock running.”

I was not very happy with that response and when the student-lawyer came into the session a few minutes later, I found him in contempt and fined him $200.

Shortly thereafter, I took a recess and asked the young man to see me in my office. When he appeared, I admonished him. I said you’re not even a lawyer yet; where do you get off showing that kind of disrespect? I told him he was one of the most talented defenders I had ever seen and I never expected that from him.

He apologized and we had an amicable discussion about being respectful toward judges even when they may be annoying. I told him to forget the contempt and the fine but remember the lesson. If you can’t respect the person, at least respect the role.

The young man went on to graduate from Boston College Law School and become one of the most talented and highly regarded criminal defense lawyers in the state. His success came as no surprise to those who saw him representing indigent defendants as a law student. In what is the most stressful area of trial practice, J.W. Carney is known for calm, determined and forceful advocacy.

From time to time when I read about him, I think back on the incident so many years ago and smile. I think his comment about keeping the clock running was one of the quickest and funniest retorts I ever heard in my years on the bench.

Come to think of it, while I may have threatened, I don’t recall ever finding anybody in contempt. In the busy District courts, you need a sense of humor.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.