Law & Disorder

The burly blond with the gold chains nestled in his chest hairs sits in the stuffy conference room across the wood table, mulling his options. His wife, short, pert, neatly coiffed and crisply dressed, sits beside him, supportive, argumentative, loyal to a fault.He has been charged with disorderly conduct stemming from a violent evening a month ago when, according to her three-page hand-written statement to police, he scared the living daylights out of her and roughed her up, making her—at least temporarily—regret the presence of his many guns in their house. She sits in front of me now to explain it away, to put the incident in context, to describe their solid marriage, and to express her dismay that the State of Wisconsin would think of holding this wonderful man accountable for his actions that terrifying night.

We are engaged in what’s called a “pretrial conference.” At this point in a criminal case, the accused or an attorney sits down with a prosecutor to discuss the case and see if it can be settled short of a trial. The options are pretty simple: either accept the state’s offer—here a guilty plea in exchange for a recommendation of probation as a first-offender, no gun possession during the probationary period, and counseling—or roll the dice and take the case to trial. In this case, a conviction could potentially trigger a federal law barring him from owning guns in the future.

Faced with the possible gun ban, he decides to take his chances with a jury. When all is said and done, he feels that nothing that he did that night violated any law. His wife is equally obstinate. She will not testify against him, period. Women, she states passionately, should become more educated about what unfair consequences could befall their mates if they call 911 during a domestic incident. I walk them to the conference room door, promise them copies of the police reports, wish them luck. I hope he doesn’t kill her when he reads her statement to the police, written when the incident was still fresh. I feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass. But there’s no time to think more deeply about it, because it’s time to call the next defendant in for a chat.

I am an assistant district attorney for the State of Wisconsin. Welcome to my world. I love my job. 

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The Real Deal

I’m going to start this post with the words “when I was in law school…” and hope that they don’t inspire a collective eye-rolling and a quick click to another link. Sort of the way selective hearing kicks in when some old-timer starts a harangue about dissolute modern youth with “when I was a youngster, I had to walk to school in the snow . . . for five miles . . . and it was uphill both ways . . . .”

At any rate, this is a passionate plea for those budding soon-to-be lawyers to PAY ATTENTION IN YOUR CRIMINAL LAW CLASSES!!

Not all that long ago I was as guilty as the next 1L or 2L of paying really rapt attention in the classes that I figured would be my bread and butter after I graduated, and paying enough attention in the other ones to get good grades. Followed by massive mental “information dumps” after the final exams.

I knew I wanted a career in criminal prosecution, and I knew that I would be drawn to appellate advocacy, so I leaned forward intently and absorbed as much as I could, and committed to memory as much as my fading hard-drive of brain cells could assimilate.

As for the rest—trusts and estates, contracts, civil procedure, secured transactions—I figured that if I ever had a legal problem in those areas, I could always hire me a good lawyer.  

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May It Please the Court…

May it please the court.”

The words are enough to strike terror into the hearts of most attorneys I know.  They are the first words you speak when you address the Wisconsin Supreme Court in an oral argument.  The words are ritual, as standardized and formulaic as Kabuki theater.  And I was about to say them myself . . . if I just didn’t faint.

I have a framed photo on my desk at work.  It dates from perhaps a year before I started law school at the age of forty, and only a few months before I would break my back in a riding accident, spend three painful months in a body cast, and have the world as I knew it divide into “before” and “after.”

In the photo, I’m standing in a winter woods, with my four children gathered around me.  They range, in that picture, from about three years old to thirteen.  We are surrounded by pristine snow and bare trees, and framed in a pretty fieldstone archway.  I am beaming, and my entire universe revolves around keeping them safe and warm and out of harm’s way.  If you had walked up to me then and told me that in just a few short years I would not only be a criminal prosecutor but find myself arguing cases before the state supreme court, I would have given you the same stare as if you’d told me a genealogical search had just revealed that I was really the Queen of England, and a Lear jet was standing by to whisk me back across the pond.  Oh, and the roof at Buckingham Palace needs fixing.

I might have smiled pleasantly, rolled my eyes . . . and then called the police.

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