December 2005


We were back in court today to hear the judge’s decision about whether our client should be transferred to adult court, tried under extended juvenile jurisdiction, or just kept in regular juvenile court. (We wanted the last one.)

Entering the juvenile court building is always kind of interesting. There’s the requisite airport-style bag scanner and metal detector. I ALWAYS trigger this thing. I figure it’s something to do with the shoes I wear to court, which are made of actual leather and feature a small heel (a real departure from the sneakers I usually wear.) As usual, today, the thing beeped accusingly and I headed over to the “wanding” area. (I wish so much that “wanding area” was a place where they gave me a cool wand with a star on the end of it and sparkly tinsel coming out of it that would make it so much easier to play Tinkerbell for Halloween next year instead of a pat down. Sadly, the juvenile court building doesn’t seem very interested in tinsel or my future Halloween costumes.) Today, the wanding area was staffed by a very short police officer with positively dreamy Buddy Holly glasses, and when I told him “it’s my shoes,” he said “I’m just glad you beeped so you had to come over here” and I got all blushy and made some awkward gesture designed to subtly show my wedding band while saying “thanks, um, gotta go.” Note to self: get better at dealing with members of opposite sex.

Anyway, I finally made it to court, where the lead attorney and the family was waiting. The judge had taken a week to make his decision after our last hearing, so today he had an opinion all written that he read into the record. The first sentence he read went something like this: “though the defense appears to have missed this development, the statute governing extended juvenile jurisdiction in Illinois changed on August 20 of this year.”

Shit shit shit. I was in charge of figuring out how that law worked. I wrote that motion. I am solely responsible for the “defense missing this development.” At this point, my stomach was about at my ankles and I started evaluating the various exits to the room to determine which looks quickest in case the lead attorney wasn’t feeling charitible and wants to rip me a new one for missing this kind of key development which was my ONLY JOB for this motion. Oh dear.

The judge continued: “the new law uses the same standards as the transfer law, enabling me to consider social factors in my analysis of whether EJJ would be important.” He went on to explain all of the shitty things that have happened in this kid’s life, all the ways he has not received the services he needs, and how the juvenile system provides the best chance for him to receive those services. Then he ruled in our favor on both our motions. Our client stays in juvenile court.

Amid the crying grandmother, the grateful uncle, and the very cheerful lead attorney, I felt so profoundly relieved that this, my first major screw up where an actual client’s future was at stake, was one that didn’t ultimately matter. I cannot imagine how I would feel right now if this had gone the other way because of my blunder.

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After the coldest first three weeks of December on record, we’ve been experiencing weirdly warm (50 degrees anyone?) weather for the past three days. This has resulted in: (a) a not-white Christmas, (b) soggy soggy soggy, and (c) the discovery of unbelievable volumes of dog poop on the sidewalk.

People! Just because there was snow on the ground does not mean you had permission to look the other way when doggy did his business on the sidewalk. Do you know why? Because now, with our weirdly warm weather and the snow melting away the poop hiding places, we are left to discover all of those little parcels and they are (b) soggy soggy soggy! So gross. Manners, people. Seriously.

In other news, I have written 7 pages of my paper today, only two days after Christmas. I might just finish this thing yet.

Christmas eve, we went with my family to our family church for the service, which features the singing of carols and general warm fuzziness. In the “meditation” before we got to the carol part, the minister made this observation: “Christians always sing when they get themselves into trouble.”

My first thought? “So I should be sure not to have any Christians on my next bank heist team.”

Um, yeah, when he said “sing,” he probably wasn’t referring to the jargon for ratting out a co-conspirator. I should perhaps think about something other than law for a while.

Today’s lesson: avoid all superstores in the days leading up to a major retail holiday that also allegedly celebrates the birth of the savior.

Driving home from a “hey! I just got off work at 3pm because it’s almost Christmas! How cool!” drink with my friends L. and M., I took the secret back way to sidestep rush hour loop traffic, mentally patting myself on the back for remembering the shortcut.

I had not counted on Target. Traffic coming from all directions was at a standstill for a solid three blocks approaching the Target right behind our building. People were actually leaving their cars on the road and just getting out to walk to the Target. It was some sort of bizarre Target pilgrammage. This year, in contrast to past years, I had a Plan. I shopped early in an effort to avoid the panicked last minute shopping. Next year, I will have to remember to include traffic maps in my Plan.

Here’s the thing about juvenile court: it sucks. The whole thing sucks. The building, with its stark white façade jutting into an otherwise downtrodden neighborhood, sucks. The courtrooms, fluorescent-lit, with a card table for each lawyer and cafeteria-style benches big enough to seat maybe 3 spectators, suck. The people working there, who don’t know where your client is and don’t know what courtroom the judge is in today and don’t know what you expect them to do about it, suck. The waiting area outside the courtrooms, where if you’re a white woman not one but two people will helpfully say “oh, you must be a victim. I hope they get him!” really suck. (As if there’s no reason a white woman would be in this place were it not to witness the conviction of her aggressor.)

But then, every once in a while, amid all the suckage, something pretty cool will happen. Today, the lawyer in charge of the case I’m working on for the clinic made a speech that was pretty cool. We were in court to argue that our client, D., should not be transferred to adult court. (Remember that motion I was writing a while back? It was argued today! It was so cool! But I’m trying to stay all calm and blasé so I don’t look like the overly enthusiastic newbie. But a judge is actually reading what I wrote! And analyzing it!) D. is accused of first degree murder (he didn’t shoot, but he was there, which under American criminal law yields the same penalty.) D. is 14 years old, was born addicted to crack, and has caught every bad break you can imagine for a young black man on the south side of Chicago. D. is also designated special ed, but stopped getting services in 6th grade and was put instead into an alternative school for behavior problems.

To get a kid transferred to adult court, the state needs to prove that there is no possibility of rehabilitation in the juvenile system because the kid has taken advantage of all the services available to him. This is clearly not the case with D., who isn’t even getting the special ed support he’s due. The lawyer, making this argument, said it better than I ever could. She said, roughly: “your honor, we don’t like to admit this, but you and I and everyone in this room knows what we are doing to these kids. When they grow up and their voices change, or their attitude changes, or they’re just not as cute as we expect them to be anymore, we stop thinking of them as kids who deserve help and start thinking of them as kids who deserve punishment. What we before classified as “learning disabilities” we start to call “attitude problems.” We are scared of these kids because they aren’t cute and little anymore. They talk like adults, they try to act like adults, and sometimes they get themselves caught up in some very adult situations. But they are not adults. What was a learning disability is still a learning disability. But we’re tired, and uncertain, and “alternative school” means “no longer in this building.” We are throwing these kids away. We have got to stop treating kids like this. No kid deserves to be thrown away.”

Amen, sister.

I just read in a magazine that the average American household will spend more than $1000 on heating this winter. I am floored. $1000? That’s incredible! We live in Chicago, where it is very very cold, but we live in an apartment, and so much heat bleeds into our place from the incredibly overheated hallways (at last check they were hovering at a toasty 83 degrees,) that we don’t actually turn on the heat that often. Before this, I lived in California, where some people believe there is winter but they are wrong, so there was no cause to turn on the heat ever. Thus, these gargantuan heating bills are not part of my experience. I had sort of figured that my $5 a month or so increase in heating costs during the Chicago winter was normal. Seems I was wrong.

This leaves me wondering why heating America’s homes is so expensive. Possible theories:

(a) the cost of gas/electricity/firewood has increased dramatically
(b) American houses are really really big and require lots of heat.
(c) American houses are really really inefficient and leak lots of heat (this is certainly the case in my parents’ house, which is 105 years old and built like a sieve)
(d) both (b) and (c)

My first instinct, on learning this little tidbit about heating costs, was to curse once again the rise of the McMansion and its companion huge utility bills. I can get good and lathered about McMansions. I grew up in a town full of old, gorgeous, sieve-y houses, and these days new owners are tearing them down like its going out of style and building new, bigger houses that extend all the way to the lot line. I am not a fan of this trend. I like my living spaces a little quirky- I’ll always remember the four foot square kitchen in my first apartment, the crooked living room floor in the first house I lived in as a teacher, and the constant hissing and clanking of the radiators in my parents’ house (see “sieve”, above.) McMansions lack these charming quirks. (Rumor has it McMansions are also less costly to keep up and totally customized to the whims of the owner, but I’m choosing to overlook that. I’m making a point here.)

So given my loathing of McMansions, it was natural for me to assume that astronomical heating bills are the fault of these newer, bigger, brighter houses. Upon reflecting further, however, I realize that the real answer is probably (e) all of the above. (I was a teacher, I should have remembered that the answer is always “all of the above!”) There have been all those NPR reports on skyrocketing fuel prices after all, and NPR usually is right about things.

Perhaps I was so quick to blame the McMansions because of a brush with death I had today involving a Hummer. (Hummers and McMansions are both filed under “silly excess” in my grandiose mental filing system, lest you wonder how the one is related to the other.) On the expressway, this Hummer nearly rear ended and ran over my little Prius as I watched, terrified, in my rear view mirror. The driver, cell phone in hand, was totally oblivious to the stopped traffic. Though I’m not a religious woman, for good measure I said a little prayer that she would notice my brake lights before I became part of a Prius pancake. I had visions of really really expensive repair bills. This car could have eaten my car for breakfast. It did not look good. I held my breath…and she came within about an inch of my bumper before stopping abruptly.

Then she honked at me.

This may be boring, apologies in advance, but it’s got me all incensed: (you hear that? Something for this paper I’m writing got me incensed! I’m intellectually engaged with the law again! Administrative law didn’t ruin me forever!)

If you’re a deadbeat dad (or mom, but “deadbeat moms” lacks the charming alliteration,) and you fail to pay child support, you can be put in jail. The court will find you in contempt of court for failure to follow the order to pay, and you’ll go to jail. There are two ways you can avoid jail, or get out once you’re there: pay the child support you owe, or illustrate that you are indigent- that is, unable to pay.

There are two kinds of contempt: criminal and civil. Civil contempt is the kindler, gentler contempt: you weren’t trying to disrespect the court per se, but you didn’t follow its orders, so now the court will have you jailed to “nudge” you into doing the right thing. Criminal contempt is the snider, nastier contempt reserved for people who disrespect the judge or the court or the whole system of law we’ve got going, and it’s designed to punish you for your impudence.

This is a long setup, but trust me, it’s important. If you’re put in jail for criminal contempt (you spit in the judge’s eye when he suggests, once again, that perhaps you should start paying your child support,) you are automatically entitled to a lawyer, and if you can’t afford one yourself, the state will appount one for you, because the 6th amendment allows for the assistance of counsel in all criminal cases. If you’re put in jail for civil contempt, however, because you weren’t trying to disrespect the court but you just aren’t paying, (which is far more likely in the case of the dad who has lost his job and can’t pay ,) then yours is a civil case and you’re probably not entitled to a lawyer, so if you can’t afford to hire one yourself, you’re outta luck. Even if you shouldn’t be in jail at all because there’s a real reason you aren’t paying (say, for example, you’re broke,) you will not get a lawyer to help you prove this.

In sum: spit in eye of judge- get lawyer to defend you. Act totally appropriately and respectfully to all parties but stop paying because you have no money to pay with- no lawyer. Jail for you!

If you’re a dad who could pay but just isn’t paying for whatever reason- yes, you should perhaps spend a night or two in jail- and as soon as you pay, incidentally, you’re out. But if you’re a dad who can’t pay, you don’t get a lawyer to help you bring that key fact to the attention of the judge, and you’ll generally sit in jail for a while with no recourse.

I’m so confused.

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