November 1, 2006 11:56 am by Gene Borio

After the Supreme Court hearing in Philip Morris v. Williams, I stopped by the old campus, the Prettyman courthouse, to see some of the old gang. Ah, but the press room was almost empty today, everyone off covering new momentous events.

Well, I thought, I’ll take a jaunt up to Courtroom #19, maybe catch just a bit of that old Kessler jurisprudence magic. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lateley, but not in regards to the tobacco trial. No, strangely enough, though I hadn’t even taken any notes on it, I’ve been haunted lately by an event that took place early one winter morning in 2005, an “emergency” hearing which had preempted the usual tobacco proceedings.

As I recall without notes, a very young woman, early 20s, black, a bit overweight, was in danger of losing her child if she didn’t faithfully adhere to a drug treatment program. She’d apparently had been having a terrible time with crack or meth or heroin, and though many people and agencies had tried to work with her, she had once again violated the terms of the latest agreement. The lawyers and Judge Kessler painstakingly worked out the details to give her this one last chance. After the legal technicalities were completed, Judge Kessler said she now needed to speak with the woman herself.

The young woman pulled herself off the edge of the jury box she’d been leaning on, and came to the center. Judge Kessler then gave her just about the most astounding, heartfelt speech I’ve ever heard, emphasizing how important this was for her life, and that she must take advantage of this last-chance deal, or she could go back to prison, and worse, she could lose her child. Judge Kessler was just so direct, so personal, so concerned yet so honest and tough, so, so — so human. (When I mentioned the incident to Sharon Eubanks during our interview last summer, she burst out, “Oh, yes! I remember that!” She too had been tremendously impressed and moved.)

Well, I couldn’t see the young woman’s face as Judge Kessler talked to her, but something about her body language told me that even Judge Kessler, with all her considerable linguistic and humanist powers, may not be getting through. And indeed, I don’t believe she saw what really happened after her speech. As the young woman turned and began walking toward the door, stonily impassive, she casually resumed chewing the gum that had been lodged somewhere in her mouth all this time. It was a heartbreaking moment, and I feared Judge Kessler was destined to have an even sadder day in court with the young woman sometime very soon.

So today I got off the elevator at the 6th floor, thinking maybe I’d see some case in Judge Kessler’s court, something undoubtedly more pedestrian than USA v. Philip Morris, and certainly nothing as dramatic as the young woman’s; but something. As I turned from the elevator foyer and looked down the broad hallway, I got a shock–what had been a solid wall at the end of the hallway, just beyond Courtroom #19, was now an open archway into a bright, gleaming new space. Of course! That huge new building they had been working on during the trial was open now, and in fact was an annex to the old Prettyman courthouse.

The new hole in the wall was a bit weird, but what was even weirder was Courtroom #19 itself. If broken-off boards had been nailed askew across the doors it could not have looked more abandoned. Once, a plaque with Judge Kessler’s name had been outside; now the rectangular space was empty, raw; the entire mounting plate had been ripped out of the wall, as if no one would ever preside here again. No docket sheet hung from the corkboard underneath; only a leftover, now-useless push-pin. The doors were locked, but if you looked through the small window, you could see the inside seemed intact; but everything was so very dark it was impossible to see beyond the visitors’ gallery. What was clear is that it hadn’t been in use for some time. #19 was a derelict courtroom.

Well, that ended that plan. So I stepped, white-rabbit-like, through the doorway in the wall and into the wide-open, sparkling new building, enjoying its architectural wonders till I found the exit.

As I was going to the Metro, who should be coming the other way but Judge Kessler! She looked quite nice, as if she had had a makeover bringing her not just into sync with the slick new annex, but fully into the 21st Century. Her hair was still blonde, but the mini-bouffant had given way to a kind of lightly haphazard, longish bob in a layered modern style; her clothes seemed far too nice to wear under those dingy Judge’s robes, combining color and style in a way that was quietly exquisite (perhaps she had an event tonight). And wait, am I misremembering here? Were her nails, once always traditional shades of red, now, daringly, powder blue?? And I hadn’t noticed before, never having seen her up close in full daylight, that her skin has a smooth, delicate, almost translucent quality. OK, 67, maybe 68, and looking, frankly, pretty hot.

I told her I’d been to the Supreme Court for the Williams case. She asked about it and I gave a quick rundown, hoping my legalese would pass muster. She talked about how painfully slow and bureaucratic the wheels of justice were these days. Her judgement in USA v. Philip Morris itself, she said, was 2 years from being final. She mentioned how much it had taken for her to write those 1700+ pages. Though our chance meeting was an hour or so before the DC Court of Appeals’ decision to stay her landmark ruling came down, perhaps she already knew of this terrible blow through some courtroom grapevine.

When I mentioned the empty shell that had been Courtroom 19, she said oh, no, she’d been in the new annex for a long time now. The old place was apparently an ancient reminiscence, dutifully dredged up, but the freshness of its memories had wilted, buried under new trials, new troubles, new dilemnas in the human parade that, never-endingly, passes daily through her bright new courtroom.

I got a sense, for the first time from this Happy Warrior, that there must be times, when you’re fighting on this level, this constantly, this intensely, and when there’s only so much even you can humanly, Sysipheanly do–from bringing multinationals to account, to helping a young woman in desperate trouble, to the myriad intractables she must face down every day–there must be times when–no matter how spruced-up and streamlined the externals–you do get weary.

But when I think about how she could so expertly disentangle and encapsulate prickly legal issues, and when I compare what I would hear from her with what I heard from the Supreme Court Justices as they fumbled about for a satisfactory jury instruction, I rued again that she is not on that Court. Her strength, clarity and force of vision would be an incredible asset, and even an inspiration to the entire Court, imho.


Ah well, so that was my run-in with Judge Kessler.

And also, this Halloween, with the Ghosts of Courtrooms Past, Courtrooms Present, and Decisions Yet to Come.

God Bless us, every one.

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