Order in Court
I’ve only been in court twice in my life, and the first time, in 1956, resulted in a jail sentence. I was 21, recently immigrated from England, and eager for new American experiences. Driving my first car, I had received a ticket for going over an occupied pedestrian crossing. (Since then, I’ve mostly been a pedestrian, and was once actually hit by a car, and seriously hurt, while crossing a street. So, I’m now quite aware of how well I deserved that ticket.)
The proceedings in the crowded Traffic Court were very brief. I had decided to take whatever punishment was coming to me, so offered no defense. I received what was probably the standard penalty for my misdeed — $10 or two days. I chose the two days — and was carted off to what was then Lincoln Heights Jail, ready for an interesting 48 hours in a world entirely new to me. (The building is still there but hasn’t been a jail since 1965.)
What I didn’t realize, however, was that, by the laws governing prison sentences, any part of a day of your sentence was counted as a whole day. So, although I didn’t arrive until early evening, I was due for release at any time past midnight. Nevertheless, the regulations required that I had to go through the whole lengthy process of being booked in. This included surrendering all personal property, which was carefully itemized and filed. Then, just a few hours later, it was the whole procedure in reverse. This left me very little time to get to know any of my fellow prisoners, of whom there were many, all of us crowded into a single large cell, which was known as a “tank.” It seemed that most of them were in for public intoxication.
Although I got free transportation to the jail, there was none upon getting out — so I had to walk the long way back to my car through the deserted streets of a very early morning Los Angeles.
My second, and, so far, last, courtroom appearance, was not until 23 years later, in 1979, and this time I was not the miscreant but the injured party — or so I claimed to be. It was a case of alleged copyright infringement. A company which made what were called T-shirt transfers had been copying and selling several of my original epigrams, without any payment, permission, or acknowledgement. Although I had been carefully copyrighting my work, many people, apparently including these defendants, did not believe you could legally claim property in sayings as short as 17 words or less. This was the first time that claim was being put to the test.
Unlike the Traffic Court, this large Federal Courtroom was practically empty. My wife, our lawyer, and I were there for our side. On the other side were two defendants and their lawyer. The only others present were the Judge and a court reporter, to record the stemwinding oratory of the occasion.
When I was called to the witness box, I was nervous. But I remember only one question from the judge which surprised me. My first book had opened with a (naturally complimentary) quote from the well-known critic, Clifton Fadiman — and the Judge asked me, “Did you pay him?” Of course, I was happy to be able to answer with a very strong, “No!”
How much effect this may have had on his decision I have no idea, but after retiring to his chambers for what seemed an agonizingly long time, he returned with a decision that my copyrights were “valid, subsisting, and enforceable,” and awarded me damages, fees, and costs totaling $18,000. Somewhat unexpectedly, this was not appealed, and was eventually paid in full.
Apart from these instances, most of my knowledge about courtrooms comes from movies. Outstanding in my memory are Inherit the Wind, about the so-called Tennessee Evolution Trial, and My Cousin Vinny. Neither film shows Southern justice in a very favorable light.
But for sheer entertainment, my vote goes to Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Trial by Jury, which is about “breach of promise,” a form of scandalous behavior we don’t hear about much anymore, although it’s still on the books in some jurisdictions. Gilbert (once a lawyer himself) has everybody sympathizing with the beautiful plaintiff, Angelina, and considering the defendant, Edwin, a scoundrel. After hearing both sides, the Judge dismisses the jury, and terminates the proceedings by announcing that “I will marry her myself!”