For the past few weeks, I’ve been away from this blog to serve as the lead counsel for a team of defense lawyers in the first federal civil jury trial to take place in our District since the pandemic erupted more than a year ago. Since the last time I appeared in any courtroom, I’d worked remotely from home, cared for Lee throughout her illness as best I could manage, helplessly witnessed cancer snuff out her life, decided to get a dog (fortunately, the dog turned out to be Lola the pup!), barely endured a tumultuous and nerve wracking season of politics, feared getting Covid, got vaccinated with a big grin under my mask, and recently started feeling a bit more hopeful about our collective future. One hell of a year I’d say.
Midway through our recent trial, while grabbing a coffee in the courthouse cafeteria, I ran into a federal judge with whom I was on friendly terms since his days as a prosecutor. Pandemic chit chat nowadays seems to have boiled down to to asking what have you been up to for the past year? So, during our conversation I mentioned Lee’s passing. Later, back in our courtroom, our trial judge called me aside to say that she had heard about Lee’s death. And just when you least expect it, your grief wells up like bile. I quickly excuse myself before I have a meltdown right in open court. No explanation necessary.
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In the immediate aftermath of Lee’s death, my professional life went on life support. It took time, but as last Fall firmly took hold, I was revving up, re-affixing my nose to the proverbial grindstone, re-focusing. Even so, in the back of my mind I could not shake a burgeoning feeling that there were important matters beyond my professional career that deserved my careful attention and care.
Indeed, after a mid-Winter RV road adventure with Craig, Donna and Lola, I devoted my time and effort to making final preparations for an April jury trial: as a team, we researched and wrote numerous and complex motions with supporting legal memoranda, drafted jury instructions, prepared the witnesses who would be testifying, revisited voluminous evidence seeking a winning edge, or seeking to rebut the opponent’s anticipated arguments. Point, counterpoint. High energy, off-the-clock effort. It was like good old times.
It is easy to get juiced at the start, but the process of trial itself can be a mentally exhausting and a grind, especially when you’re suffering a “bad day” and your opponent looks like he has gained an upper hand at your expense. Every trial has its own surprises, twists, unexpected turns, but in my experience a well-prepared and exacting case minimizes such unpleasant surprises and reduces the impact. In the end, you hope you have fewer “bad days” than your opponent has.
The truth is, strictly in terms of preparation, this trial was not so very different from the many other jury trials I have conducted over a long career. However, in terms of presentation, the pandemic made this trial unique. For example, except for a testifying witness, everyone in the courtroom always wore a mask. I can say honestly that before this trial I never had to question a witness while looking like a holdup man wearing a suit. It was not just me. Every trial participant, from the presiding judge and her staff to the lawyers presenting the case, to the jurors who would decide the case, submitted to two Covid tests per week utilizing a cutting-edge, saliva-based test that produces quick and accurate results. Naturally, social distancing was strictly enforced. At one point, a clerk roaming the courtroom with a measuring tape determined that one of my clients was sitting a mere 5’10” away from the defense table, rather than the required 6’, and forced him to relocate to the public gallery, turning him into a mere spectator at his own trial. Jurors also were kept socially distant based on Covid protocols. For their own safety, jurors were spread throughout the gigantic ceremonial courtroom where our case was tried. The jury box itself serves to impose close physical proximity, and as I watch them take their chairs I worry how the new “pandemic seating” might affect this jury’s ability to function as a group when it needs to during its deliberations. As I deliver my closing argument, the unprecedented and unorthodox seating arrangements make me feel I am a stage performer working a room to a half-empty house.
In one part of my argument, I ridicule my opponent for relying on “string and ceiling wax and other fancy stuff” instead of actual evidence. Of course, I have pilfered this line from the old Peter, Paul, and Mary folk song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.” I had planned to introduce it by way of an anecdote based on my childhood interest in 60’s folk music. Now, as I stand before them delivering my argument, the jurors appear so youthful looking I fear they won’t know what I am talking about, and so abandon my amusing story on the fly. At our next break, and as if she has been reading my mind, the judge says, “Mr. Ravitz, I recognized that line you used, but I wonder whether they did.”
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I again consider that burgeoning feeling I had first experienced after Lee died. Now that the trial is over I think this might be a good time for me to take a step back professionally and begin focusing on the other good things in my life. I am not retiring. Maybe I will simply fade away until one day I am completely gone. Right now, I am comfortable with the notion that one day I will be a productive ghost.
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To celebrate my new sense freedom, I took Tuesday off from work, threw Lola in the car and we drove to Craig and Donna’s house. Then we all went hiking and enjoyed a leisurely dinner. Around dinnertime, their son James made a video call to his folks from his home in Texas. I’ve known James his entire life. He was with his little boy Jameson, who is four. Jameson was very excited and could hardly wait to tell his grandmother that he had just finished reading the book, Puff the Magic Dragon. While Jameson sat on his dad’s lap, dressed in a dragon costume, we adults joined him for a rousing rendition of the song itself. Talk about important matters beyond my professional career. I was happy that I knew all the words.