November-December 2010

“Do good” and other hackneyed platitudes from a lame duck

C. Scott Brumley

County Attorney in Potter County

The race has almost been run. The lights are being turned off. The shark is being jumped. Alas, the end of my term as president of this extraordinary association is at hand. And I never got to issue an executive order designating a mascot of our organization. Teddy the TDCAA Tarantula never found much traction or favor with the focus group. So, regrettably, I must leave that task to the capable hands of my successor: the upright, professorial, and indubitable Mike Fouts. Hail to the chief.

As you know, Douglas MacArthur famously quipped that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. In the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, old presidents don’t die. They’re simply moved to a position where they can wreak greater havoc. As I prepare to make Henry M. Robert roll over in his grave during the coming year, I begin to feel a bit contemplative. (An antacid takes care of that uncomfortable feeling.) Then I ponder what I’ve learned during the time I’ve been a member of TDCAA. Much of it has been useful but a bit too mundane to take up column inches. Some of it shouldn’t be repeated in print. But some of that institutional information strikes me as worthy of repeating. Thus, as a final didactic (or defiant) act, I offer the following nuggets of wisdom passed to me during my membership in our association. Keep them handy; they may just save your sanity some day.

  1. If the defendant’s name is Icepick, there’s a good chance that deferred will be an inappropriate offer.
  2. There is a First Amendment right to operate an S.O.B. in your county. In this context, an S.O.B. is a sexually oriented business. Be that as it may, there is not a First Amendment right to call the judge who rules for that business an S.O.B. in open court.
  3. Sometimes the first thing the defense lawyer does is call a press conference. It usually won’t be to say nice things about you. At least you can rest a bit easier knowing that being called unprincipled by such a media hound is, as our wise first assistant says, “like being called ugly by a possum.”
  4. Jurors may be amused if you cross or roll your eyes while another lawyer is speaking. Judges seldom are. And I never am. You know who you are. I wouldn’t be so annoyed if you didn’t work in the same office as me.
  5. If opposing counsel smells like the cologne counter at Dillard’s, get everything in writing.
  6. When setting a deadline for an officer, clerk, or client to deliver something to you, build in an extra two days’ padding. That’s not meant to imply that the folks we deal with are mischievously dilatory. It’s just that most people are prone to waiting until the very last minute to take care of things, especially things they might find tedious or annoying. According to most folks, there is precious little that is more tedious and annoying than a lawyer’s directives. With all of that in mind, if the deadline is for a lawyer (whether opposing counsel or someone in your office), build in an extra two weeks’’ padding.
  7. If you, as a prosecutor, don’t like a particular law, you have the training and talent to work to change it. If you, as a prosecutor, like a particular law, the odds are great that someone with a lot more money and influence than you doesn’t like it and will get it changed.
  8. Even the most sedate of bosses in a prosecutor’s office can become disturbingly draconian about seemingly harmless and insignificant practical jokes. Such as, hypothetically speaking, pasting a photograph of a less-than-sympathetic-to-the-State peer just above a copy of §38.122 of the Penal Code (Falsely Holding Oneself Out as a Lawyer) on the inside of a toilet lid in the office bathroom. Free speech may not be dead, but it has spent some time in the emergency room.
  9. If you post a query on the association’s website about a legal issue concerning the county’s effective tax rate, a volunteer fire district, or venue for some obscure misdemeanor, you may hear crickets chirping around the state. If you post an item concerning the all-too-wacky things drunks do, bizarre instrumentalities of death or serious bodily injury, nakedness, noodling, or unconventional ways to consume sherry, you may get more than 1,000 replies. That’s just another reason why I love this association.
  10. Trial success in Texas often is directly proportional to the strength of the advocate’s drawl. Follow me on this. Unless I exercise extreme self-restraint, I slip into my natural voice inflection. My Minnesota-born wife refers to it a bit condescendingly as my “hick voice,” which she—unsurprisingly—finds loathsome. But, despite my wife’s 10,000 lakes wisdom, I’ve lost more frequently when waxing eruditely than when talking like I’m at a feed store. You may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but you’ll catch even more with cow pies. Good defense lawyers understand this, too. Our jurors may puzzle over the intricacies of necessity and a victim’s provocative tendencies, but they’re crystal clear on the concept of “he needed killin’.”
  11. A good judge knows the law and applies it to the facts. A great judge wears boots and applies them to the neck of a lawyer who tries to sneak in little advocacy gems, such as repeatedly referring to the State’s lawyer as the “persecutor.”
  12. Life is just a little jollier if you get the chance to prosecute a possession of an undersized fish case. In that event, as a matter of law, you must refer to the defense’s theory as a “fish story” or “stink bait” and scoff at the notion that anyone would buy the defendant’s story “hook, line, and sinker.” It also helps if the defendant shows up for trial three sheets to the wind. As you should gather, there’s never a dull day in a Justice of the Peace court.
  13. Using Latin terminology makes you sound so much more scholarly than plain old English. Consider the difference, for example, between “ipse dixit” and “because I said so.” As an additional benefit, using Latin terminology makes people think you’re an arrogant nerd. It’s a great club. We meet in the law library and speak eloquently of our love for the law. Totidem verbis.