Lawyers are expected to fight for their clients. That is the mantra drilled into your head starting the first day of law school. The American legal system is an adversarial system based on the premise that lawyers on opposite sides make the best argument for their client. It is a clash of ideas. An impartial judge or jury decides who has the best argument and who wins. Of course, it does not always work that way, as reflected by the, O. J. Simpson case. It is an imperfect system that sometimes pits a much better lawyer or a client with unlimited resources against the small and weak. Despite its imperfections, it still works pretty well. Consider Ralph Nader and the battle for safer cars.
When I graduated from law school I had no idea how this important principle would play out early in my career. I went to work for the Missouri Highway Commission, now known MoDOT, right out of law school. One of my jobs was to enforce Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification law requiring all junkyards within 200 feet of a state highway to have a fence screening the junk from the view of the highway. You might say I was a junkyard lawyer. One of my first cases in Kirksville, Missouri involved a junkyard dealer who had failed to build a fence to screen the junk from the highway. On the day of trial I appeared in court at 9 A. M. with Don Kammerer, a law school classmate. Judge Bruce Normile called the docket and we tried the case that morning. Right before noon, Judge Normile, slapped his gavel down and announced he was he was going to grant the Highway Commission the injunction.
We gathered up our papers and left the courtroom noticing a large group of junkyard dealer’s mulling around in the hallway outside the courtroom. I recognized one of the junkyard dealers who looked like a middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. I was so proud and full of myself that I stuck out my hand to shake hands, asking the junkyard dealer, “How are you coming along with your junkyard? What was I thinking! This was my first mistake of the day, unless you consider getting up in the morning a mistake. He responded, “Mr. Wright if you give me a **##*# like you did the defendant in court today you will be dead. To top it off he added, “And if you sue me you will be dead in 30 days.” He then reached out with the palm of his hand and lightly tapped our expert witness George Crook, several times on the side of the face stating, “What do you think of that Georgie?” At that point my co-counsel Don Kammerer, who looked like a middle guard flinched, – at least that is all it seemed like to me – and with that a melee broke loose with Don getting thrown to the ground and pummeled with fists.
With all of the commotion in the hall Judge Normile, came out of the courtroom and the junkyard dealer’s quickly split. By the end of the day the junkyard dealer was charged, arrested, arraigned, tried, convicted, sentenced, and jailed. As I recall he got six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. Wow! They sure know how to make the judicial system move with lightning speed in Kirksville when necessary.
On the long drive back to Jefferson City, Don licked his wounds. His face was bruised and puffed up but no permanent damages. I wondered how did I avoid Don’s fate? That seemed pretty strange. I also wondered, would the local newspaper have a headline like: “Highway lawyers get beat up.” This episode added for me, new meaning to the words, “Fighting for your client.”
Howard Wright @ 2011