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Thursday, November 25, 2004

Showing up in court

Woody Allen — a source of many wryly wise sayings, despite the abominable wreck of his own personal life — famously quipped that "80 percent of life is showing up."

In litigation, the winning percentage for those who merely manage to show up is somewhat lower, but still substantial. A couple of the tick marks in my "wins" column as a young lawyer came from small claims court cases in which my corporate client — required by Texas law to appear through a lawyer and unable to appear "pro se" as a natural person might have — paid me to show up, and the person suing it didn't.

At that point in each case, I solemnly rose to my feet to make a "motion for entry of judgment nihil dicit" — which in one instance drew a chuckle from the judge and in the other, an uncomprehending stare. The Latin phrase "nihil dicit" — literally "he says nothing" — traditionally is used with reference to a judgment entered when the defendant fails to deny the plaintiff's claim, but can also be used, as best I was able to determine, when the plaintiff files a claim and then fails to appear to present it at trial. Perhaps the uncomprehending look was from a Justice of the Peace with superior Latin skills to my own meager ones, though; regardless, we both agreed that since I was there for the defendant and the plaintiff wasn't, the defendant should win with no further ado.

There are, of course, analogs in the criminal courts, as this story from today's Houston Chronicle indicates:

After demanding her day in court, Shannon Rechter decided not to show up.

The 38-year-old mother who claimed she was assaulted in the carpool line of a west Houston private school did not come to municipal court Wednesday morning for the scheduled trial of Sandra Chiang.

Chiang, a 40-year-old mother of two, was accused of slapping Rechter in the face for cutting in the carpool line on Dec. 13, 2003.

But without Rechter to testify, the misdemeanor assault charge was dismissed....

Rechter's absence came as a surprise after she had vigorously pursued the case by calling police, filing charges, frequently calling the city prosecutor's office and complaining that officials at the school did not take her claims seriously.

She said she gave up after another parent from school refused to testify on her behalf.

"Without a witness, I had no case," Rechter explained Wednesday afternoon, when reached by telephone.

Of course, at least in this particular courtroom, Ms. Rechter technically "had no case" either with or without supporting witnesses. Despite the Chronicle's misleading headline — "Plaintiff fails to show up for trial of carpool mom" — Ms. Rechter wasn't a "plaintiff," nor in charge of the case, but rather the "complaining witness" whose claims had prompted a (probably justifiably reluctant) prosecutor to press charges. The case belonged to the City of Houston, for an alleged offense against the peace and dignity of the City — not to Ms. Rechter.

What annoys most people about this story is the notion of going to court over a childish squabble that may or may not have involved physical contact, but in no one's version of events involved any damage more lasting than a briefly reddened cheek (perhaps from a slap, perhaps from anger). What particularly annoys me, though, is the notion that Ms. Rechter went so far out of her way to start the wheel of the criminal justice system rolling, and then hijacked the prosecutor's decision over whether to proceed. She wasted my tax dollars by treating the criminal justice system as if it were her own to control.  That's a poor lesson for a parent to teach her children.

Posted by Beldar at 08:00 AM in Current Affairs, Law (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Showing up in court and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» The criminal prosecution system from Commonwealth Conservative

Tracked on Nov 25, 2004 9:09:11 AM

» Showing up in court from Flight Pundit

Tracked on Nov 29, 2004 10:08:46 PM


(1) John Behan made the following comment | Nov 25, 2004 9:01:49 AM | Permalink

I'm an elected prosecutor in Virginia (and a blogger!), and believe me, we see nonsense like this case all the time. You wouldn't believe the number of ridiculous charges that are taken out that waste my time and the time of my assistants.

Thanks for highlighting it.


(2) Sandra made the following comment | Dec 25, 2004 12:57:40 AM | Permalink

I am the person Shannon Recther said "slapped her". I am very upset that a person with such a big "ego" can claim that I slapped her, while every time she saw me would shoot her middle finger at me, in front of her children and mine, then went on and keyed my car, in front of her daughter. I have far too much to loose to do such a hanus act as to "slap" a person. I am very upset that a person, such as Shannon Recther, can take advantage of our tax system as Shannon Recther did in this case and get away with it. There must be some responsibility on her part, other than my hiring a lawyer to countersue her. As you know, your and my tax dollar supported this person's "ego"! What can we do to stop this from repeating itself? I am very open to any ideas you may have. This crazy thing can happen to anyone, you included! I would much rather our dollars be spent solving murders and rape cases!

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