John F. Dobbyn
Suppose you were to wake up one Monday morning to a promising, amber sun rising out of Boston Harbor. You walk through the Public Garden past the sleeping swan boats under a symphony of chiming crystal icicles on every perfect branch. The first thing that touches your tongue is a golden sip of Hector Brolio’s ambrosiac coffee on Washington Street. At that point, would you be inclined to look up and say, “This is going to be the worst day of my life”?
Neither would I-at least not until Judge Amos Bradley’s clerk gave me a determined “get in here” sign outside of the courtroom, followed by his South Boston-accented stage whisper.
“Hey, Michael. Hustle it up. The judge is about to hear your motions.”
The little pit of acid that bubbled up in my stomach was by no means uncalled-for. I was a third-year associate with a Boston law firm that read like the passenger manifest of the Mayflower-towit, Bilson, Dawes, Lefbridge amp; Sykes.
My four years as a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s office plus three years as an associate with Bilson, Dawes had finally elevated me to the bottom rung of the litigation section of the firm. “Litigation,” not to be confused with “trial work,” is the buzzword for upscale court representation of properly moneyed clients in the pristine arena of civil law.
I had just recently become entrusted by the firm to solo on pretrial motions, in spite of the fact that I had been handling the defense of major criminal cases on court appointments for the previous three years.
This particular Monday morning, I had a motion hearing before the Honorable Amos Bradley, rumored in every bar frequented by Boston trial attorneys to be destined to be the next African American justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. I had the rare pleasure of trying to convince him that one of our prestigious clients, Martin Lothrop III, should not be required to answer interrogatories disclosing the innermost financial secrets of his empire of rat-ridden apartments from the South End of Boston through Roxbury to the edge of Jamaica Plain.
Our client ran a profitable roach kingdom because he followed the rules. Rule One in the guidebook for successful slumlording was known to Caesar-divide and conquer. As long as the opposition is an individual impoverished African American or Puerto Rican, no sweat. In the case at hand, rule one had been badly neutralized when a public-interest group brought a class action on behalf of the army of our client’s tenants.
In that case, fall back on rule two-never let them see the enemy; i.e., never hold a square inch of property in your own name. Let each apartment house be owned by a corporation, which is in turn owned by a corporation, which is controlled by a joint venture, etc., until the spider at the center of the web is all but invisible, and even the web itself can be traced only by a skillful investigator with time and determination. “Time and determination” are synonymous with “outrageous expense.”
My motion was to quash interrogatories filed by the plaintiffs that would have forced the spider, our client, to disclose how the monthly rent checks from little Mrs. Morales in Roxbury and Joseph Brown in the South End and others around the city worked their way through the maze and into his corporate bank account. If the plaintiffs were successful, they might get the court to order our client to pull funds from his other hidden enterprises to lift his squalid apartments from grotesque to merely intolerable.
My simple task was to convince Judge Bradley, who had climbed to the bench on a courageous civil rights record, that the esteemed Martin Lothrop III’s finance-play was none of Mrs. Jimenez’s business, and therefore, he should not have to answer her interrogatories. Does the genesis of the bubble of stomach acid become apparent?
The motion session began at ten sharp. Judge Bradley barely sat before focusing a look in my direction that seemed to have behind it the wrath of the just God.
“I’ll hear your arguments, Mr. Knight. Let me tell you first that I’ve read this.”
He was holding my written brief on the motion between two fingers, much as one would handle a used diaper.
“Do you wish to argue each of these points, Mr. Knight?”
“I do, Your Honor.” Said I, the sacrificial lamb.
Point by point, I made whatever arguments I could dredge out of a slightly slanted reading of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address. I’d have cited Dr. Seuss if I could have gotten any yardage out of it.
I made a separate argument on each of the interrogatories individually. Every time I’d finish an argument and take a breath, I could see His Honor bend to scribble “DENIED” on that clause of my motion. He all but added an exclamation point. What took a fresh bite out of my withering self-confidence with each “denied” was the fact that Judge Bradley never even looked at my opposing counsel for a bit of counterargument.
After nine or ten of these little forays and retreats, I took a glance over at my esteemed opposing counsel, Ms. Deborah Dane. The contented smile on her face turned to a grin when I gave her a look that must have clearly said, “How’s about we change sides for a few minutes?”
At eleven o’clock on the nose, the judge rose and called for the morning recess. By the time the bailiff cried, “All rise,” I had one lucid thought left-downstairs for a gasp of sweet, clean air, and a chocolate blitz at Bailey’s.
The thought died in the birthing, however. The last communication Judge Bradley sent in my direction was a “come in here” gesture as he disappeared into chambers. I looked over at plaintiff’s counsel for illumination, or better yet, accompaniment. She smiled, shrugged, and passed quickly out into the free world.
The bailiff gave me a noncommittal smile as I passed into the walnut-paneled chamber. Four round-back oak chairs sat in reverent audience before a massive desk. Judge Bradley stood something over six feet tall. In his late fifties, he still had the well-proportioned frame that had scored a number of touchdowns for Harvard some thirty years ago. He had a reputation for good humor off the bench. At this particular moment, as he sat sideways to the desk, drumming his fingers together in front of him, I’d have preferred a chat with Torquemada.
He waved me into one of the chairs and started before I fully landed.
“Mr. Knight, I won’t mince words. I want to retain your services. I’d like you to defend my son in a criminal matter.”
For some turns in the conversation you’re prepared. Others leave you wondering if you’ll ever get your jaw in an upright position. I managed the next question on instinct.
“On what charge, Judge?”
“Murder.” There was a pause before and after the word. I let the silence hang until he picked up the thread.
“You might have heard about the elderly gentleman in Chinatown. The shooting yesterday. The police have arrested my son, Anthony. He’s being held for trial in the Suffolk County jail. Martin Muller handled the arraignment this morning. He pleaded not guilty.”
I was still fighting my way back through shock. I could see that it was no easier on him. My mind raced back to my morning reading of Mike Loftus’s column on the front page of the Boston Globe. Mr. Chen An-Yong watched the ritual as he had for seventy-two years. He sat in the window of his second-level apartment over the grocery store that had been his world since he came to Boston’s Chinatown fifty-two years ago. His eyes were riveted on the twenty-foot red, green, and gold cloth lion snaking its way to the door of his shop. The percussion of firecrackers, as deafening as machine-gun fire, filled the teeming streets of Chinatown and lay down a pall of gray smoke. Drums and rasping cymbals followed the gyrating oversized head and whipping tail of the lion, as the black-clad men beneath it manipulated their way through the mass of people to each restaurant and shop along Tyler Street. Shopkeepers ignited five-foot chains of firecrackers as the lion approached. A string from above each doorway dangled lettuce to feed and cash to appease the symbolic beast for the coming year. Mr. Chen was not