Don’t interfere when you are winning

Superior Court Judge J.B. Allen was a rather large man with a big personality. He had white hair, a booming voice, and a no-nonsense approach to the most mundane issue. Some say he was a bit of a bully.

I tried my first serious case before Judge Allen. My client was accused of attempted murder and faced decades in prison. Colleagues warned me for days about a loud, controlling, intimidating figure on his way.

Despite the warnings, we tried the case largely without incident. My client was convicted of a less serious offense, and the possibility of decades in prison turned into fewer than five years.

But I knew who was in charge, and it wasn’t me.

As I left for lunch after the verdict, Judge Allen was walking in a different direction. I was a little nervous when he turned toward me. Judge Allen stood close, put his arm on mine, and smiled.

“Amos, you done a good job. It come out just like it was supposed to.”

Although I have appeared before many judges, I spent a substantial portion of my career in court with Judge Allen. I entered pleas, tried serious offenses, and selected a capital jury. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed his decisions twice based on petitions I filed. Although he was authoritarian in court, few judges were more pleasant to me or approachable outside court.

One morning in the late nineties, I had a hearing before Judge Allen, but was scheduled for another appearance in a district court matter. District court is a lower court and superior court appearances take precedence. Scheduling conflicts are common and most district judges respect our obligations.

I finished my case before Judge Allen. As I walked toward district court, a colleague informed me that the presiding district court judge had cited me for contempt. The basis was my absence while appearing before Judge Allen.

That seemed odd. The judge should have known I was in superior court. I assumed it was his mistake.

When I appeared, the district court judge confirmed the citation and scheduled a contempt hearing despite my explanation. I left surprised, annoyed, and ready to fight.

My first plan was to hire a very experienced, smart lawyer with a great reputation named Thomas Maher. He worked at the time with another highly regarded lawyer named David Rudolf. I did not know Tom, but knew I needed him for this fight.

I left a message with Tom’s office. He called me back within hours and I explained the situation. By this time, I was on fire and explained that we were tired of the district judge’s bullying, saw this accusation as an affront to the defense bar, and planned to fight.

Tom’s response, “no you are not. The judge will settle down, realize he is wrong, and dismiss the citation. You are winning. Save your fight for when you have some exposure.”

Tom was right. The judge backed down and dismissed the citation. I didn’t get an apology, but didn’t make an enemy of a person in power, who had probably had a bad day.

A few years later, I moved my office to the same building where Tom practiced. Tom and I shared a small suite of offices. We worked on cases together, represented co-defendants, and traded advice often.

After a few years, Tom left for a second career leading the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and later the North Carolina Indigent Defense Service. We remained friends and met many Fridays to commiserate over beers with other lawyers.

Now, Tom is leaving the world of policy and joining our practice in January. I am excited, honored, and a bit intimidated. He brings nearly forty years of experience, a keen intellect, and a passion for helping people.

Tom and I will work together on serious criminal matters, white collar investigations, and appeals. I look forward to his continued guidance.

We are criminal trial lawyers. We represent people accused of criminal offenses who risk losing everything. We work to get them their best results and back to leading productive lives.

Call if you need us, or if you just want to say hello.

Amos

P.S. Peace and joy over the holidays!