May 15, 2020by Jon Kramer

Stand Up! | Compassion in a crowded courtroom

Copyright 5-15-20  /   1,753 words by Jon Kramer
Nonfiction.  These events took place 12-17-14

The week before Christmas 2014, I found myself in Conciliation Court to contest a bizarre claim against my company made by a contractor who thought I should pay him for work he had not done.  I entered the courtroom a little early and took my seat amongst the growing crowd of desperados.  I watched all manner of humanity crowd into the little room, some in groups, some alone.  Some were young, many were not.  All looked to be struggling.

“All rise,” the bailiff announced as the Judge strode in.  Despite the somber black robe, His Honor was a handsome middle-aged, state administrator with a trimmed goatee framing a ready smile and accenting sharp, witty eyes.  He greeted the courtroom as if embarrassed by the protocol.  OK, OK, he said, motioning with his free hand for us to sit down, Please be seated… .  He quickly set about the business of dispensing justice.

The cases presented to the docket were varied and sometimes colorful.  But they quickly became as monotonous as a soap opera.  If you ever watched any of the courtroom reality shows on TV you might think you know a little about the scene.  But sit in Conciliation Court all day and you’ll soon learn things are not nearly as entertaining as they appear on screen.

Several cases involved disputes over tenant security deposits, one of which reminded me of the last time I was here, some 20 years prior, when my girlfriend and I fought to get back our security deposit from an unscrupulous landlord.

As the clock ticked on from one hour to the next, I began to feel agitated waiting for my case to be called.  I had better things to do then sit here waiting to defend myself against a moron leveling insane charges against me. I am not, by nature, what you’d describe as a patient person. I have a hard time sitting still for my dentist, let alone hours on a courtroom bench. The only way I kept in my seat was by saying to myself  The next one will be us…  But it wasn’t.

Presently a case involving a local bank was called:  First Street Bank vs. John Thompson.  The attorney for the bank stepped forward and took her place at the Plaintiff’s table.  The Judge asked the audience if the Defendant was present.  There was no reply.  He then asked the attorney to state her case and she explained the bank was trying to collect a debt on a credit card they had issued the Defendant.  There had been no payments for 6 months.  In the absence of any defense the Judge ordered a Summary Judgment in favor of the Plaintiff.  Pretty straightforward.  At least we didn’t have to waste time listening to two sides haggle.

The next case was another featuring the same bank, same scenario – credit card debt.  Well, at least they had them grouped together so they didn’t waste time running back and forth to the podium.  Again, there was no Defendant.  And, again, Summary Judgment for the Plaintiff.

When they called the next case, it was the same bank again! And again!  About that time the entire rest of the courtroom – all waiting like me to have their case heard –  were getting a bit pissed about the bank taking up all the time.  Just how many such cases could they have?  I mean, shouldn’t there be a law against monopolizing the court’s time because you are so plainly stupid as to issue credit cards to people who cannot pay?

After 6 consecutive cases with the same bank – all no-shows on the part of the defendant – there was a pile of Summary Judgments for the Plaintiff.  And then the court called yet another – First Street Bank vs. Thomas Solberg, and finally there was a defendant.  I’m here! announced a gravelly voice from a few rows ahead as a hand raised amid the crowd.  A decrepit old fellow rose slowly from his bench seat and shuffled awkwardly to the lectern.  It was obvious to one and all this man could barely walk.  In fact, he didn’t really walk at all –  he dragged himself along in tiny measured scrapings of his feet, his left arm hanging limply at his side.  With a grimace on his weathered face he declared, I’m Thomas Solberg, your Honor, though I may not be much to look at…

The Judge wasted no time in getting down to the matter at hand and asked the Plaintiff to state her case.  The woman representing the bank was no-nonsense.  She outlined succinctly the case against the Defendant.  The Judge then turned his attention:

So, Mr. Solberg, as you have heard, the bank claims you are in default of your credit card by $685.00.  I am assuming, by your presence here today, that you dispute the claim, or some portion of it.

To everyone’s surprise Solberg replied, If you made such an assumption, Your Honor, you’d be wrong.  I do not dispute the claim and do not deny that I owe the bank all of what they say I owe.  In fact, I may owe them more than that, I don’t know…

The Judge, as the rest of us, was quite surprised to hear this.  So then why are you here, Mr. Solberg?

Because I cannot pay it! he declared, hoarsely.  I wrote a letter and explained everything.  They told me they got the letter but that I had to pay anyway.  Your Honor, I am only here to explain that I cannot pay it.  I’ll never be able to pay it!   I worked hard labor all my life.  Things was going along just fine.  I paid my bills and paid my taxes.  Proud to do so…  But last year I came down with Multiple Sclerosis.  I tried to keep up as best I could.  I cut back on all but essentials.  I lost my job ‘cuz I can’t work it no more.  I filed for disability but it ain’t come through.  I lost my apartment and been living among friends.  The only job I got is ringing the Salvation Army bell, and for Lord’s sake, I can’t even do that very well….

The courtroom was dead quiet.  We were all transfixed.  After a few moments the Judge regained his composure and said  Mr. Solberg, I sympathize with your situation, I really do.  I am sorry for your condition.  But my job is to enforce the law, and I cannot make exceptions.  The Plaintiff has a claim against you, one you fully admit is valid.  I have no other choice but to enter a Judgement against you for the full amount.  I am sorry…but that’s all I can do.

The Defendant stood as upright as his pathetic condition would allow.  His head was bent as he mumbled,  I understand, Sir…I just wanted to explain, that’s all….

There was a palpable heaviness in the air.  The silence was excruciating. You could almost hear the silent prayers that the crowd were saying on behalf of this poor man.  The Judge had just started reciting his Order for the record when suddenly a man in the very last row jumped to his feet and yelled, Your Honor!  Please wait before you do that! This may be a bit unusual but I wish to settle this case.  I will pay the debt for this man right now!

The entire courtroom turned in their seats to face me. I cannot stand to watch this any longer,  I said. This man is obviously a victim of terrible circumstances that are not his fault. I will pay his debt right here, right now, and wish to have the case against him dismissed.

The banker was taken aback, Your Honor, this is quite unusual….

I’ll say!  the Judge exclaimed.  Sir, are you related to the Defendant?

No, I am not, I responded.

Are you a friend or co- worker?

No, Your Honor.  I do not know this man.  I have never met him.

You do not know him, yet you wish to settle his debts with the bank?

Yes, Your Honor, I explained, however you need it handled, I will to do it right now.  I wish to have the claim against him dismissed.

The Judge was rather flummoxed, but said, If the bank is willing to entertain this rather unusual development, I will put the docket aside while the parties convene in the hall to see if a settlement can be reached. I will call another case while you confer.

We went into the hall.  On the way out the bank attorney turned to me and exclaimed  Who are you?

I’m nobody, I said.  It doesn’t matter who I am….  I’ve been given a chance to help this man and I must do it!  Here’s my credit card – run it for the full amount and drop the case against him.

She had to call her boss, and we had to go downstairs to another bank, but a few minutes later she said, It’s all done, we’ll dismiss the case.  She went back into the courtroom to tell the judge.  I stayed in the hall with Mr. Solberg.  When the confirmation came, I felt a great relief inside.  I told Mr. Solberg the good news.  What happened? he asked, obviously confused.  I told him his debt was paid and the bank had dropped the case.

But …but…how? he stammered.

Well, I guess Santa came early, I explained.  Now you can go home and enjoy the holidays. 

After profuse Thank You’s he began to shuffled off down the hall.

Just then a middle aged woman from the courtroom audience came rushing out into the hall.  I love this! she declared, And so does everyone else in there! We want to help.  I took up a collection and we’ve come up with $100. to donate to the cause.

I told her it wasn’t necessary because the debt was already taken care of.  I motioned toward the end of the hall.  Mr. Solberg was already on his way.  She said, Well, in that case we’ll give him a little extra Holiday cheer.  She ran down the hall and pressed the $100 into Thomas Solberg’s hand.  He was crying as she gave him a big hug.

You ring that bell proud tonight! she said.