Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"I Promise I Will Tell No Lies"

Note: I first posted this on 10/26/06 and then I took it down right away. I was worried that I might get in trouble for talking about work. The case was finished over three years ago and I wanted to put it back up again. I love this story.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2006
The Case - An Application for Political Asylum in the Immigration Court
The Stakes - If we lose, the client goes back to his home country and will be killed

I had three urgent projects I was working on last night. I needed to clear the decks so I could come into work this morning and focus on today. I left work at 9pm last night after getting everything done.

This morning: As usual I'm running late and literally running around. I'm trying on clothes and throwing them on the big bed. I was supposed to have done my laundry but hadn't had the time. I'm exhausted, but I need to be calm and on top of my game. I can't figure out what to wear and my choices are too limited. I slip into my $450 Italian shoes and run to my car. A womanly way to solve the "what do I wear?" problem.

Driving through the streets of San Francisco feels like a trap, a 16th century dance, a weaving as we roll in and out and try to avoid the pedestrians who can't keep their asses on the sidewalk. I approach Van Ness and there's a double parked brown UPS truck in the usual spot. I slip gracefully around it. Crossing Market Street means taking your life into your hands, but I slide into the correct lane and make a left onto Mission Street. It's a beautiful morning. The sun is shining. It's warm and the sky is clear.

At work. My suit jacket is too tight. I look great (head to toe in black), but I need to have the jacket tailored. Just move the buttons over about 3/4 of an inch. The shoes help. Super shiny black patent leather. I can see myself in them.

I wander slowly through the hallways. Cleaning your office of last night's projects is a really good way to clear your head. In a few minutes they will be here and everything will begin.

I meet our clients for the first time. I have read their story at least 10 times and each time I can't believe it. I'm looking at history right in front of me. I am introduced. The guy I'm working with is a nice guy, does good work, but today I will learn the depths of his kindness and compassion and I will be amazed.

We have lunch. The Reverend, or rather the Guardian Angel, has come along. His heart is so big that he gently glows with it. He's incredibly articulate. I can't help but think that this man's work and life must sustain him as he answers that higher calling.

We make our way to Court. Slowly. The client has a limp and that limp is a major part of his story. The top of his cane is worn from having to lean on it all the time. I am worried, but he's still gracious and smiling. We arrive and the waiting begins. We wait. We wait and wait some more. The client's wife doesn't speak English. Neither of them do. She offers me a packet of gum. I refuse graciously and then look at her face. This is a gift, she's offering me a token of esteem. I take the gum. She shows me pictures of her family. They are beautiful and far away from here.

Just before we go into Court, there's a fire alarm. The lights flash on and off. Everyone, including the people at Homeland Security, evacuates the building. In the lobby, the firemen walk around in their gear. They look concerned and puzzled. We finally hear it was a false alarm, the third one that week. We make our way back into the building.

Finally in the courtroom and it's our turn. A single image burns in my mind:
The client and his wife stand and are sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They are both raising their right hands together. They are standing so close they are touching each other. The judge in his black robe swears them in. Through the translator the client says "I promise I will tell no lies" instead of saying "I do." Behind them, the Reverend is sitting next to me. He sits with his eyes closed and his hands clasped in his lap. He is praying.
The story our client tells is so compelling that we barely have to do anything. The story moves and jolts us along. It's something that should be written down. Towards the end of the day, just when we were winding down, there's another fire alarm and we clear the building again. This time we wait outside looking at two bright red fire trucks. The firemen, probably the same ones from earlier, are loading up tanks on their backs. One of them holds a huge ax. They look grim and concerned. Getting the green light to go back into the building because it was yet another false alarm takes much longer.

Back in the Courtroom. We wrap up for the day. We'll be back next week.

Outside, I say goodbye to the Reverend and our clients. The client's wife hugs me. I am moved. I can't talk to her. At least not in English. We share a small moment of kindness.


That first day we thought our case was a no brainer, a slam dunk win. I mean, after you've heard the story how could we not win? Five days in Court and many weeks later, it became clear that our case was NOT a slam dunk. The Judge indicated to us during a particularly grueling day that he was still not sure which way he was going to rule. The going got tough, but we got going. We did our best to comply with what the Judge wanted. The client was questioned and questioned and questioned again. A parade of translators came and went.

The week before the last day in Court, I wandered through the hallways at work in shock. It had finally dawned on me that we might lose this case. The consequences of losing were so severe that losing was literally not an option. I marshalled my resources. I talked to other attorneys. I called someone I love very much so I could talk to him about my fears. I talked to my friends. I cried and then focused on my work.

Last day in Court, a beautiful, sunny morning. Things were looking really scary. The client would be questioned yet again and the strain was wearing him down. The guy I work with was worried during our morning meeting. He asked the Reverend to say a prayer before we went into Court.

In the waiting room, I stood there trying to think good thoughts. I needed the strength I have to be on top of everything. As I waited with the others, the Reverend stood up and took the client's and his wife's hands in his. He said a prayer. A long one. I watched and folded my hands. I couldn't understand what was being said, but it made me tear up anyway. I never pray, but I did in that waiting room. It seemed like a good idea at the time. All around us were so many people. People speaking in foreign languages, people holding stacks of paper and books and the Deputies as they patrolled the hallways.

The first good sign was a translator from a couple of weeks ago had returned. They flew him in from Minnosota. He was the best translator we had. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

In the courtroom, the client was seated and was asked more questions. I sat and watched. A couple hours went by. I kept trying to breathe. There was a break and then time for closing arguments.

I didn't know what to expect from the guy I was working with. I thought he would go in with both barrels blazing, but instead he spoke gently, almost softly. Being in the courtroom is a performance. You have to know what you're talking about, but you also have to convey specific information to your audience. Most importantly, you have to recap the story you're telling because all court cases are stories. Here, the guy was not only doing a lovely recap, but his kindness, compassion and absolute faith in the case came through. I saw him shine with it and so did the Judge. I was so proud.

The Judge then talked about the case. He talked for a long time. He talked about his concerns and why we were losing on these different points. I sat there gripping my hands because I thought we were going to lose for sure. I thought all was lost, but then the Judge explained why we were winning on one issue. I closed my eyes in relief. We were all quiet. The translator looked at the client, who had no idea what the Judge was saying since it wasn't being translated for him, and nodded and smiled. I started to tear up then. I look at the Reverend sitting next to me. He smiled and then I reached out and we squeezed our hands together in quiet triumph.

The Judge went through some procedural issues. We all stayed quiet and calm. I felt like I was about to explode. After everything was over, the guy I was working with stood and turned. The smile on his face was glorious. He and the Reverend hugged and then he told the Reverend to tell the clients that we'd won. Instead, the Reverend hugged the client and ruffled his hair. Me, the translator, the Reverend, the client and his wife all started to cry.

We made it out of the courtroom. I could barely keep it together. The client's wife thanked the Judge and I could see from the Judge's smile that he felt he had done the right thing that day. Once outside the courtroom, I lost it. I cried and cried. I was happy, grateful and proud. I'd never cried after winning and this felt so real and so sweet. I felt like I had, for once, made a real difference in the world.

The rest of the day, I floated on air. I glowed and then got really tired. I told a bunch of people and then quietly went back to work. It was good that we didn't have any fire alarms in Court that day.


anne said...

MT, this is a wonderful story and I am so glad you shared it.

There are some days at work that make it all worthwhile... to make up for most days when you wonder if what you do for a living makes a difference to anyone at all.

It is good to know you had a "worthwhile" day!

Anonymous said...

Your writing is wonderful, as always, and continues to astonish me (wink).