A young lawyer takes on the judge who is destroying her hometown
– and ends up behind bars...
“I WASN’T PRESENT at the courthouse in Erva, Alabama, on that morning in June, when events unfolded that would suck me into the undertow of Douglas County. But I’ve talked to the people who were there. I’ve heard the story from all perspectives.
They all recalled that it was a bright day. The morning sun filled the courtroom with light, making the polished walnut benches and vintage millwork gleam.
The county inmates, garbed in orange scrubs, sat together in the front row of the courtroom gallery, bowing their heads to keep the sun out of their eyes. One young man covered his face with his hands.
The district attorney shifted in his chair to peer through the glass panes in the doors leading into the courtroom rotunda. His unlined face wore an anxious expression.
The court reporter’s heels tapped a nervous staccato beat on the tile floor. She turned and whispered to the bailiff, who stood beside the door to the chambers of Judge Wyatt Pickens.
“Well, where is he?” the court reporter said, just as the chamber door opened and Judge Pickens emerged.
The occupants of the courtroom jumped to their feet even before the bailiff’s voice called out, “All rise! The Circuit Court of Douglas County, Alabama, is now in session, Judge Wyatt Pickens presiding.”
The judge settled into his seat. He opened the laptop on the bench before briefly examining a stack of manila file folders. “You may be seated.”
As the courtroom rustled with the sounds of people shuffling back onto the benches, the judge looked out over the courtroom.
His eyes narrowed. “Where is the public defender?”
No one answered. The inmates in orange exchanged glances but maintained perfect silence. The district attorney tugged at his suit jacket and cleared his throat.
The noise caught the judge’s attention. “Mr. Carson? Where is the public defender?”
The young attorney stood and said, “I haven’t seen him this morning, Judge.”
Judge Pickens turned to the bailiff. “Harold?”
“Well, Judge, I’ve been here since about 7:30 this morning. Didn’t see him in the coffee shop or the lobby.”
Judge Pickens sighed. “This is our criminal docket day. We can’t proceed without him.” He turned to his clerk, a pretty woman hovering near the door to chambers.
“Betsy, if you would, please make a call over to the public defender’s office. See if you can raise him.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” She disappeared through the chambers door.
The silence in the courtroom was broken by a female inmate. “Judge? I seen him this week at the jail.” When the judge ignored her contribution, the woman slid back onto her bench.
Betsy reappeared. With an apologetic grimace, she said, “Judge, I just got the answering machine at his office.”
“Call his cell phone.” The judge’s voice was patient, but his face grew ruddy.
“I did, Judge. He didn’t pick up.” After a pause, she said, “I left a message.”
Judge Pickens drummed his fingers on the surface of the bench, the tempo increasing in speed and intensity. Then he stopped and slapped his palm on the wood veneer.
“Harold, you’re going to have to head over there and get him.”
The bailiff bobbed his head. “Yes, sir, Your Honor.”
Outside the courtroom, Harold took the century-old courthouse’s marble stairs cautiously, gripping the brass handrail as he descended. He didn’t care to take a tumble. The bailiff wasn’t a young man, and his prosthetic foot made maneuvering the stairs particularly tricky.
He exited the courthouse and headed across the street to a two-story building that had been converted into the public defender’s office. The paint on the door designating Rob Ford public defender of the district was still shiny, as though it hadn’t yet had time to dry.
Harold turned the door handle, half expecting the entrance to be locked, but the door opened freely. The reception area was empty.
There was no response. When the bailiff stepped inside, the door shut behind him. Harold made a face. It smelled like there was a sewer backup in here, and since the office was county property,
Harold made a mental note to tell Judge Pickens so the judge could get the county commission on top of the problem.
“The smell of sewage was stronger outside the office door. The bailiff’s head bobbed as he swallowed. His hand shook when he turned the doorknob.”
As he walked across the reception room, Harold heard the crunch of broken glass under his shoe leather. He looked down and saw a shattered picture frame, facedown on the floor. Bending over with a grunt of effort, he picked up the frame and examined it. It was a family portrait: the public defender, his wife holding an infant, and two young children, a boy and a girl.
The bailiff lifted his head and called out again, “Rob? You in here? The judge is waiting on you.”
He set the frame faceup against the wall, then walked a narrow hallway where a closed door bore a plastic nameplate, designating it as the office of Robert Ford, public defender. Harold rapped on the door with two knuckles.
“Rob? We’ve got a courtroom full of folks waiting across the street.”
The smell of sewage was stronger outside the office door. The bailiff’s head bobbed as he swallowed. His hand shook when he turned the doorknob.
When he pushed the door open, a low moan escaped his throat. Moving involuntarily, he stepped back into the hallway and turned his head away, burying his nose in his sleeve.
The public defender’s body hung by a leather strap tied to an overhead light fixture. On the floor, a wooden office chair lay on its side, near the puddle of excrement under the hanging man’s still body.
The bailiff stole another glance, to determine whether there was any chance the man was still alive. One look confirmed it: the gray face, bulging, sightless eyes, limp hands left no doubt.
He pulled the door shut and made his way out of the building with speed that defied his age. Once safely outside, he leaned against the rough stucco exterior of the building and drew deep breaths before pulling his phone from his pocket to call the judge.
As he scraped his shoes on the sidewalk to remove the glass particles, the bailiff muttered to himself: “Here we go again.”
“A HUNDRED MILES away from Douglas County, I hurried into the elevator of a 1970s office tower in downtown Birmingham, Alabama. I checked my reflection in the metal doors, fruitlessly attempting to finger-comb my wind-whipped red hair before the door opened onto the eleventh-floor offices of my workplace, Simon, Shelton, and Associates.
I dropped my briefcase inside my office. The color scheme was beige: paint, paper, carpet, upholstery. Even my wall hangings were strictly business: my license to practice, two diplomas from the University of Alabama, and my framed law review certificate. The last one hung directly across from my desk, where I could see it. Because I’d worked my butt off to obtain it.
The only treasures in my office were some framed pictures, which sat on my desktop, facing me. I had a smiling snapshot of my parents, taken a year before they were killed in a highway collision when I was in college. All of the other frames held photos of my five-year-old son, Andy. The wallpaper on my computer screen displayed my favorite shot, taken this past March, the Saturday before his open-heart surgery, when we toured the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame — a proud Andy sitting beside a bronze football player, with the statue of Bear Bryant grinning behind him.
I quickly settled down to business, editing an appellate brief that one of the senior partners had handed off to me. It was meticulous work, and I took care to double-check the quotations and citations in the text. The law firm didn’t want to look sloppy in the eyes of the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. If there was an error, I knew exactly which direction the shit would roll.
After an hour, I needed to get up and stretch, so I headed to the employees’ refrigerator for a bottle of water. On the way back, I stopped at the employee mailroom, where I saw that almost every mailbox held a single sheet of loose paper. I found mine — under FOSTER, MARTHA — and glanced at the heading as I carried it back to my office. A chill ran through me as I read.
To: All company employees
Re: Changes to company benefits plan
“At that, I nearly choked. “Babysitting? My son had open-heart surgery.”
The memo contained only five brief paragraphs. But the message it conveyed was so jarring, I knocked over the water bottle as I read it. The water spilled onto a file folder I kept on the far corner of my desk: the growing stack of Andy’s medical bills, coordinated with explanations of my benefits.
My breath hitched as I read on, and phrases jumped out at me:
only able to offer high-deductible policies
$6,000 individual deductible, $12,000 family maximum
out-of-network providers will no longer be covered
family medical leave no longer compensatory
The bottom line read:
Our goal is to mitigate costs associated with our self-insured program.
The memo was signed with a familiar scrawl: Sterling Shelton, the senior partner.
When I read it through to the end, the wave of fury that rolled over me made my vision gray out, blurring the words on the page. But I didn’t need to see the printed paragraphs to comprehend the target of the memo: me.
The new policy was clearly aimed at me and my five-year-old son.
I launched out of my chair with the paper in my fist. The senior partner’s office was on the floor above mine, but I couldn’t wait for the elevator. I took the stairs up two at a time.
Sterling’s office sat at the far end of the hallway. I flew down the beige carpet, pausing only to take a breath in front of his closed office door. But I flung the door open without bothering to knock. Shelton looked up, surprised.
Standing in the doorway, I held out the sheet of paper in my shaking hand.
“Got the memo,” I said.
“SHELTON NODDED AT a chair. “Have a seat, Martha.”
“No. Don’t think I will.” I walked up to his desk, determined to remain on my feet, though my knees trembled. “This is bullshit,” I said, partly crumpling the memo in my grip.
“Martha. Sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit down.”
He glanced away, giving a shrug. “Suit yourself.”
“So about this new policy,” I said. “Don’t think I’m fooled. You’re aiming this at me and my son, Andy.”
My voice had cracked when I’d spoken Andy’s name aloud. I cleared my throat, trying to hold it together.
During the pause, Sterling leaned back in his chair — making it easier to maintain eye contact, I assumed — and let loose the cannon.
“Your son cost this law firm a fortune this year alone. It’s not sustainable. I have a business to run.”
The tone of his voice was more chilling than the words he’d uttered. At that point, I slid into the chair I had refused to occupy, because my knees gave out.
“I’m entitled to my employee benefits. It’s one of the reasons I work so hard at my job. I need the health insurance. For Andy.”
His eyes shifted to the side, and when he spoke again, his voice was cool, as if we were discussing everyday business. “Our stop-loss is one hundred thousand dollars per insured. Why do you think you’re worth that?”
Affronted, I said, “I do great work for this firm, have for the past six years. I’m responsible for all of the legal research and writing —”
He cut me off. “What about your absenteeism? You missed three successive weeks in March.”
The statement was so unfair, I saw red. “I worked from the hospital, worked from home.”
“This is a law office. You have to be a visible part of the team. The rest of the staff shouldn’t be expected to cover for your babysitting.”
At that, I nearly choked. “Babysitting? My son had open-heart surgery.”
Soberly, he nodded. I thought my words had made an impact until he said, “Yes. With the most expensive health-care provider in the region.”
Angry tears threatened to erupt; I forced them back through sheer will. “Andy has a rare congenital heart defect. There’s only one surgeon in Alabama qualified to perform the procedure he needed.”
Shelton cocked his head to one side. “I’m sure that’s a weighty problem.”
I received the message: it was my problem, not his. I got back to my feet, unable to stomach remaining in the room much longer.
“Don’t expect me to apologize for my son’s heart condition. I’ve pulled my weight for six years, and you know it. No associate in this firm produces more billable hours.”
“That’s right. Six years ago, we couldn’t tell you were pregnant when you interviewed, and you sure as hell didn’t mention it. If I’d known, do you think we’d have hired you?”
I grasped the back of the chair. I knew Sterling Shelton was a cold, hard man, but he’d never revealed himself so baldly. “Oh, my God. What you’re saying — it’s illegal. This whole conversation — my pregnancy, my family medical leave — you’re flouting federal law. Title VII, and the FMLA.”
He scoffed. “You have a lot of nerve, Martha, storming in here with your pious attitude while I foot your medical bills. Where’s the boy’s father in all of this? Do you even know who the father is?”
By that point, I had headed for the door, but now I turned to face him. “You despicable sack of shit.”
He actually smiled when I said it, then gave a low whistle. “You’re showing your true colors today. I always liked your gumption, but don’t think you can aim it at me,” he said. “If you don’t like the new benefits policy, you know what you can do. Or we can pretend this conversation never happened. But if you ever talk to me like this again, I’ll have you escorted off the premises.”
I wheeled around, pulling myself up straight. “I’d like to see you try.”
Then I escaped, determined to have the last word.”
Extracted from Jailhouse Lawyer, out now.
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