Original Short Story – “The Judge”
By Trey Wilson
From his elevated position, the Judge glowers down at the courtroom, bespectacled and with furrowed brow surrounded by tufts of stringy grey. Wrinkles line his face like rutted wagon trails, revealing a ruggedness that sharply contrasts the countless sedentary decades spent in this courtroom. Prominent as they are, the folds and creases yet belie the Judge’s true age and term of court.
He first ascended to the bench in those uncertain days, when the mournful cries from the Alamo and victorious exhortations of San Jacinto echoed in recent memory. Upon his oath, he swore before God and man to uphold the laws and constitution of this great state, and the fledgling union to which its leaders recently pledged allegiance under crushing debt and bruises of abbreviated independence.
As a young jurist, he was characterized as fair, though sometimes harsh. The local citizenry – and particularly the bar – were acutely aware that his judicial demeanor was the product of frontier upbringing, distinguished legal education and firm reverence to Jeffersonian democracy. His written opinions were meticulous, insightful and generously peppered with excerpts from his favorite legal text – the Book of Deuteronomy. Often in the form of handwritten letters to counsel, they were well-reasoned, and imparted with wisdom that made them worth the wait.
During his time as a student in Virginia, the Judge had rubbed elbows — though infrequently as possible — with the privileged gentry. His blue-blooded classmates enjoyed every ostensive advantage, but not once did he envy them or their promising futures in the esteemed firms of New England and the east coast. Instead, he considered these men pretentious and hopelessly lacking the strength of character required to survive – much less practice law — in a place like Texas. More than once, he sniggered at the thought of the arrogant cavaliers gazing for the first time upon a Comanche raiding party.
The Judge had known barbary from an early age. Exalted tales of Hamilton and Burr dueling chivalrously seemed pedestrian compared to the violence occasioned upon, and by, his own family. As a toddler, he witnessed, first-hand, crushing blows and lethal shots delivered by the same hands that had just hours-before been raised in song. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound… How quickly that familiar chorus had faded the instant the siege began. The sight of the marauder’s blood imbued in him an acuity to the elemental nature of a desperate man – in this instance, his own father.
It was always known that, if he returned, he would be the Judge. The local kingmakers, unsophisticated and raucous as they were, knew that order and justice were overdue.
His grooming began the day of his homecoming. Though undeniably altered by his new command of Latin and the noblest principles – stare decisis, comity, precedence — the Judge remained one of them. He was the local-kid-done-well who, despite superior intellect and boundless potential, had forsaken a comfortable life for the opportunity to bring civility to his father’s territory.
Each time he slipped into the black robe that he would don interminably, the Judge’s thoughts were of how Jefferson had spurned the pageantry of British court dress. Yet, even in the sweltering summers, brutal winters and murky days dimmed by choking pollen that coated every surface, he wore the traditional attire that simultaneously befit his position and paid homage to an empire from whose laws liberation was paid in blood.
Once anointed by the County fathers, the Judge served twenty-eight years before the first – and last — challenger dared to throw his hat into the ring. By then, the lips of the Great Emancipator – a man he venerated in private – had grown pale and still, and Reconstruction was in full swing.
A nation recently divided by war was waging a painful peace marred by the victors’ conquest. Despite the dismantling of the Texas Supreme Court by the U.S. Army a few months earlier, the Judge easily won local re-election. Further evidence that the locals paid little mind to matters of federal concern.
As with the previous decades, those following his only campaign were filled with refereeing clashes of every character. Hardscrabble farmers, grieving widows, feuding neighbors, local merchants, Scalawags and Carpetbaggers, alike, appeared before him. He incarcerated the drunks and pickpockets, and sent more than a few murderous souls to the gallows. He was most content when his days were consumed with resolving differences in a community where life was undeniably hard and opportunity scarce.
Decidedly different from his counterpart dispensing justice from a saloon near the Pecos, the Judge was dignified, impartial and sober. To the public eye, he was a man who preferred plume over pistol and pew over saloon. His growing affinity for, and companionship with, Samuel Colt and Col. Beam were known only to the Judge’s closest confidants — none of whom ever practiced before him.
For better than three decades, the Judge scoffed at employing a bailiff. He recoiled at the notion of any visitor questioning whether absolute control of security and civility were anything less than his alone. Besides, notwithstanding his age, he placed more confidence in his reserve of frontier instinct than the protectorate of the County Sheriff.
In the aftermath of the California murder arrest of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice following a train platform slap, the powers in Austin prevailed. The Judge found their mandate for an armed courtroom attendant ironic, given that the slain man – once a judge himself — lie dead at the hands of the Justice’s bodyguard. Of course, this was only because the defender was quicker to draw than the plodding Justice. In an earlier scrape, the decedent had wielded a Bowie knife in court, while the bailiff stood frozen. The Judge had little doubt that such insolence in his courtroom would have been met with repercussions fierce enough to thwart a second encounter.
The Judge was called by the Governor to preside in a trial over the breech of Austin’s Great Granite Dam. At the end of that ordeal, which seemed to span the whole of the coldest winter in memory, he charged the jury. Uncharacteristically, and in what can only be considered a lapse of unflappability brought on by the death of children hard at work in a sunken basement, he gingerly nudged the tribunal toward remunerating the families of the drowned workers. His invitation was unanimously accepted with scant subtlety. Despite its just outcome, something about that trial struck a nerve in him.
When he returned home a few weeks later, the Judge was noticeably subdued and gaunt. More than one courthouse regular noticed his downcast air and sullen eyes. The slight upturn in his tight lips – the sole indicator of an internal glee – was rarely seen any longer, a slight rasp was heard whenever he summonsed the litigants to his bench. Nevertheless, his daily admonition – equal parts warning and self-affirmation — remained voluble as ever:
“If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.”
With these words uttered, each day’s docket was called, and justice thereafter meted out.
Not until a few months later did it become evident that the Judge’s overwintering in Austin had also imbedded within him a detestation for the broad horizontal arcs made by permitting the oak bar gate to swing freely. The exact particulars of his hatred, or its origins, were not revealed. Nevertheless, it soon became known that any lawyer or litigant approaching from behind the bar best make certain that the gate was fully at rest before proceeding toward the bench or counsel tables.
Almost daily, unwitting offenders of the “Gate Decree” faced the Judge’s wrath. Most perpetrators were out-of-towners, and the local bar watched in delight each time he ordered the bailiff to remove a Houston or Dallas lawyer from the courtroom. Occasionally, the entire courthouse square was treated to impromptu theatrics when the bailiff felt inclined to employ handcuffs in fulfillment of this duty.
The Gate Decree was followed by a litany of other edicts adopted by the Judge in the name of courtroom decorum. While many were forgotten as quickly as they were levied, others persisted.
Through a vote of lawyers conducted in hushed hallway whispers, it was determined that the Judge was actively, if incrementally, imposing strict Mosaic Law upon the whole lot of them. Yet, not one dared to object or so much as hint at any consternation, even when lunching with the Judge or greeting him on Sunday.
Armistice was widely celebrated in town, and the Judge’s clan reveled with their fellow citizens. His youngest nephew – the only son of a favored brother lost in the Great Storm – returned victorious. He carried with him the now-muddied and sweat-stained card the Judge had given him upon his enlistment. In the Judge’s own scrawl a simple verse was written: Duet. 7:21-24.
Prone to regale the throngs of congratulating town folk with tales of heroism, including his own, the young man’s private conversations with his uncle were far more ominous. He was profoundly changed by the death, immense suffering and debilitating hunger witnessed in the French countryside. Little did either of them know, these distressing memories portended the future of their own community.
His constituency of litigants was insulated by poverty and rurality from the extravagances of the Gilded Age, and a short time later, the earliest agonies of the Great Depression. They could not, however, escape the ravages of drought and dust on the prairies. Stifling gales turned the once-fertile soil into foggy hazes of dust that seemed to reach the sun.
As is universally true, desperation breeds conflict. Quarrels grew more spiteful as family farms were lost to foreclosure when crop yields were diminished to nil. Even the upstanding citizens resorted to larceny in the throes of hunger, and one night the local store was picked clean by a convoy of Dust Bowl refugees westbound in dilapidated jalopies.
Following the run on its resources by the hungry and unemployed, the county was rendered temporarily unable to bankroll the salaries of even its indispensable officials. Even then, the Judge presided from aloft, his robe and angular visage caked in dust.
Though petty crime ran rampant, he convicted not one man during the black blizzards. Nor did he seek recompense once the county coffers were replenished.
At long last,the great rains fell gloriously in Texas, while a half world away bombs tumbled from the sky. Once properly provoked, our boys joined the fray.
A Presidential Order to exclude and inter American citizens withstood strict scrutiny by 8 of the President’s men. Segregation on buses was outlawed, and the railroads soon followed suit. A few years later, Latino lawyers from Texas – one of whom had even met the Judge many years prior – argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
As he had accurately predicted some 60 years before, Plessywas reversed. Prosecutors were barred from eliminating minority and female jurors. Not long after, hate speech and even pornography were afforded constitutional protection.
Yet, undeterred by profound legal and societal change – monumental transformations whose broad strokes daily influence the rulings emanating from this very courtroom, his courtroom — the Judge retreats further into silence. Perpetually imperturbable, he listens and observes, his eyes ever-glittering behind ancient wire frames. His robe forever unfaded.
I feel as though I know him intimately, but we never met.
It matters not. He is in my care now. Today, I am in charge of this courtroom, but it is not mine. After more than a century in this place, he has earned the respite I bring.
He will lie in state for the winter, carefully crated.
Next spring, when this ancient courtroom – his courtroom – is restored to its original splendor, I will return him to his rightful spot high above the bench. From there, he will witness another epoch of imperfect justice.