David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Beneath the robes are real people

David Bernthal/Off the Bench: Beneath the robes are real people

As we bid 2017 farewell and welcome 2018 with anticipation, many people reflect on the past and visualize what they hope to see or accomplish in the year ahead. I would like to do a little reminiscing in today's column in both a lighthearted and serious way.

It is fairly common for judges and lawyers to invite law students to work with them. Typically, we refer to the students as interns or externs. Regardless, the students have an opportunity to encounter "real life" in the legal profession. In my time on the bench, I was blessed by having students in chambers. I bet they all have some story from those days. One, in particular, stands out. We had a trial involving allegations of excessive force being used by a police officer. One of the witnesses needed to demonstrate proper technique for taking an arrestee to the ground. He needed a volunteer to play the role of the person being arrested. Somewhere there is a lawyer telling the tale of the time he worked as an extern in Judge Bernthal's chambers and ended up (uninjured I should point out) on the floor of the courtroom in front of the jury. You just cannot get that kind of courtroom experience any old place.

One of my favorite law student stories was told by a man recalling one of his adventures working in a law firm during a summer between semesters. While I did not witness the events, I believe them to have been truthfully and accurately reported. The student worked in a well-known large law firm in Indianapolis. It was the habit for one of the name partners to leave town for an extended getaway during the summer. The student was feeling pretty good about his situation one day and so he decided to sit at the desk of the distinguished name partner. He got totally caught up in the moment and propped his feet upon the desk while looking out over the city from his lofty vantage point. He was brought back to reality when the door opened and, you guessed it, the regular occupant of the office stepped in. "You must be that bright young fellow from Harvard we hired for the summer," observed the attorney. I think the student was at a loss for words.

Now for the best part of the story. It was told by the student himself during a speech delivered at the Seventh Circuit Conference. You see, the student in the story is now the Chief Justice of The United States, The Honorable John Roberts. That story, coupled with the brief visit I had with the chief justice prior to the dinner (I was in the right place at the right time ... I assure you he did not come looking for me), made clear that despite his lofty position and achievements, he is still a real person who relates well with and cares about people.

Recalling that encounter reminded me of another which also happened at a Seventh Circuit Conference. At one of the luncheons, I was seated at a table with several of my Central District of Illinois colleagues. At one point, I sensed the presence of someone standing over my left shoulder. Instinctively, I glanced up and much to my surprise saw Associate Justice Elena Kagan, who had recently been designated as our circuit justice. I immediately rose out of respect. (All right, I admit I jumped up out of my seat practically knocking over my water glass.) Graciously, Justice Kagan asked if she could join us. Since none of us had lost his or her mind that day, we welcomed her. She was funny and engaging as she shared some stories from her time at the Supreme Court. Just as Chief Justice Roberts had done, Justice Kagan came across as genuine and unpretentious.

Over the years, I encountered many judges from all over the U.S. Like any other group of people, the judiciary has its share of unpleasant grumps. There were a few judges that were full of themselves. Maybe they confused appointed with anointed. However, I can say with no hesitation or doubt that the vast majority of men and women I met were dedicated to the rule of law and to faithfully carrying out their duties. Regardless of rank, they showed heart in addition to intellect. Beneath the robes are real people who care about other people. It was a privilege to have served with these people. I admire them, value their friendship and benefited greatly from my association with them.

David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is askthejudge1@gmail.com.

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