Seventeen years and five days from what must have been the lowest day of his professional life, U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla and I shared a few anxious hours together in the waiting room of the maternity ward at Baptist Hospital East. He was awaiting the birth of a daughter, I a son.
Whatever your station in life, an experience like that binds you in your common humanity, if only for a short time. He was a lawyer, I was a reporter. For those few hours we were just two nervous, happy guys.
I knew McCalla slightly then and would come to know him better over the years as a federal judge, a handball player at the YMCA, and a lunchtime companion at the Wolf River Society. I have only rarely seen him on the bench. But then the appellate judges who forced him to accept a six-month respite and behavioral counseling probably havent seen him on the handball court, either. Or in the waiting room.
The punishment is puzzling, even if McCalla did not officially dispute the facts of the complaints against him, which came mainly from lawyers at the firm of Burch Porter and Johnson.The damning transcripts that were made public and published in the newspaper did not clarify things much.
They showed McCalla berating an attorney for what he saw as a lack of preparedness. Not once or twice, but again and again. When a lawyer does it in court, its called badgering the witness. Counsel will refrain . . . blah blah blah.
McCalla is punctual on the bench, maybe compulsively so. Well, some attorneys are tardy, long-winded, and obtuse, maybe chronically so.
McCalla is snippy and sarcastic at times. Maybe too much so. Some lawyers, on the other hand, are prima-donnas, maybe pathologically so.
In short, Judge McCalla sometimes gave lawyers a horse doctors dose of their own medicine. In 20 years of covering trials on and off, it still amazes me that witnesses never leap from the dock to strangle the attorneys who badger them, humiliate them, embarrass them, or fail to give them competent counsel. I dont know how they sit there and take it. I believe this thought may have crossed McCallas mind as well.
The writer Jesse Stuart wrote that the law is a powerful thing. Powerful enough, in Stuarts story, to make a Kentucky redneck send his grandson to school. In our town, the law is powerful enough to get to the bottom of a football recruiting scandal or a business scam or a custody fight or a murder. Lawyers have supeenees, as actor Wilford Brimley said as the prosecutor in the movie Absence of Malice.
A wonderful thing, a subpoena. It can make the most reluctant witness talk, and even tell the truth. On a good week a fourth of the phone calls I make as a reporter are not returned; on a bad week its more like three-fourths. Probably a typical batting average for the press. No supeenees, you see. Reporters can hardly ever get the real story, or we cant tell it because we have to swim in the same water.
Ten years ago, McCalla became a judge in this world where you can get to the bottom of things and find out whats really what, and he brought with him all his considerable brainpower as well as his impatience, his temper, his biases, and the tenacity of a handball player. Strangely enough, the law firm that brought him down includes some of his erstwhile Wolf River Society lunch companions. Even in the courtroom, that arena of gladiators, there are rules, and McCalla broke them, or so they say.
An hour after he surrendered to the appellate judges and agreed to their humiliating terms, McCalla agreed to see me for a few minutes in his chambers. He was cleanshaven, dry eyed, and his handshake and voice were firm. I asked him if I could use anything he said under any conditions in a newspaper story. He looked at his lawyer standing several feet away. She said nothing, and shook her head, no.
-- JOHN BRANSTON