May 10, 2011

“Clothes make the person.” Mark Twain wrote.  “Naked people have little, if any, influence in society.” That was before Playboy.

For ages, the way a person dressed did matter.  However, for some mysterious reason, that seems to be changing.Over the last 25 years, there has been a noticeable change in what people deem proper to wear in what has always been considered a formal setting.I’m not sure why that has happened.  But it is very obvious.   Look around you at church.  The “Sunday best” that people wear is not . . . well, let us say that it is doubtful that it is the “best” they have to wear.

Appropriate Dress For The Courtroom Setting

Over the years where I noticed it most was in our courtrooms.  As a judge, I became totally amazed at what people wore to court.

In our day to day lives, two of the most important occasions we encounter in the ebb and flow of a rural community life are church and court.  Fortunately, most people don’t have reason to attend the latter.  But it happens, if for no other reason than when summonsed as jurors.

While serving as a circuit judge, I sent jurors home for being inappropriately dressed for the serious proceedings.  I would have criminal defendants facing time in prison show up dressed in gym shorts.

On one day, two divorced parents contesting custody of their children both showed up for this critical hearing wearing shorts.  I promptly sent them home and rescheduled the hearing.

I finally had to post an order on the courtroom door barring anyone coming to court wearing shorts, tank tops, or t-shirts with inappropriate messages.  Not exactly the dress code of a Pope’s coronation.

But make no mistake about it. The way a person is dressed can still make a difference.

One case comes to mind.  The young man who stood before me for sentencing had a pretty shaky record.  No ax murderer or any crimes of violence.  But he was not your star candidate for probation.  That day he was being sentenced for arson. One night he had burned an unoccupied outbuilding owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.  The structure was not much bigger than a phone booth and was used by a person who took up fees in the summer time to have access to the beach in old Kuttawa on Barkley Lake – a practice that had been very unpopular among much of the local populace who had much of their property taken by force from them by the government that was now charging them to use the property they took.  But it was arson – not a crime to be sneezed at.  The probation officer and I had extensively gone over the kid’s pre-sentence report over the noon hour.  The kid was on the bubble.  I most likely was going to “send him.”  But then in court, the young man appeared dressed up in a suit, white shirt and tie, with his hair plastered down to his head.  He stood ram rod straight, his hands clasped behind him.  I was told later by a state detective that sweat actually dropped off of his hands onto the floor.  I looked him over and saw a young person who was truly sorry and recognized the seriousness of his crime.  And yes, much of that was the fact that his dressed showed me he really cared.  It told me that he understood that we were there at that pivotal moment in his life, at a very important place, that it was . . . well, serious. He was taking it serious.

He deserved a shot, so I probated him.   I never saw him again.  He delivered.

It’s not poverty which drives people to dress tacky.  While filling in as special judge in McCracken County one day, I saw a young man show up for district court wearing a Boston Celtic uniform.  Not cheap.  You could have bought a pair of trousers and a dress shirt at Walmart for half the price he paid for that gaudy getup.

In my drug court, we would have “dress up day” occasionally.  I’d tell my drug court director that I wanted all the participants to show up for their monthly review in open court in formal dress.  Men in coats and ties.  Women with dresses or skirts and blouses.  I told him if any could not afford the clothes, I’d buy them for them.  Not a one needed help.  And when they showed up in court they looked like a million bucks.  Most importantly, you could tell that they felt like a million bucks.

Not The Best Message To Send On Your Day In Court

So we are not talking about lacking the means to look nice. I remember as a boy on Saturday afternoons when poor, humble farmers went to town.  The most penurious would wear clean and freshly starched shirts under their overalls, sometimes even with ties.

My maternal grandfather McCuistion died at 87 years of age.  To his last day on earth when he was relegated pretty much to the confines of his home, he took pride in the way he looked.  He would bathe and wear crisp, clean pants and a shirt.  His pants were held up with a sharply snapped pair of suspenders. The top button of the shirt would be neatly fastened.  Clean shaven and neatly dressed, he was always presentable if anyone decided to drop by. Most importantly in his mind, even if no one came, he was presentable for himself.  A little pride is not a bad thing.

Ever sit in a high school gym for a basketball game and see the opposing boys’ team walk through the door?  What runs through your mind when you see them neatly dressed in coats and ties?  I don’t know what you think, but here is what I think. This team may or may not be a very good basketball team.  But there is discipline in their lives. There is some school pride in their lives. There is some personal pride in their lives.  There is a coach who cares in their lives.  Good for him.  That is what I think.

I’m becoming a moldy old dinosaur.   I still believe the way we dress for church, for court and for special occasions not only says something about these activities in which we are engaged, but it says something about us.  We are making a statement for the entire world to see.  This is important.

But modern ways say otherwise.

And what do I know?  I’m just an old country judge.

A Martyred Judge

May 10, 2011

Judge John Elliott of the Kentucky Court of Appeals wrote the opinion of Buford v. Guthriein 1879.  At that time, the Court of Appeals was Kentucky’s highest court.  When he authored that case, little did he know that he was signing his own death warrant.

Old KY State House in Frankfort

Just a few days later, on March 26, 1879, he and fellow judge Thomas Hines were making their way back from the court room in the Old State House to their lodging at the Capitol Hotel in downtown Frankfort.   As they approached the hotel on Ann Street, a deranged Thomas Buford stepped up to him with a loaded shotgun.  There was a quick, cordial exchange of conversation and then Buford shot him.  Judge Elliott fell dead upon the sidewalk.

By all accounts, Judge John Elliott was a very good man.  He was born in Floyd County, Kentucky and had served in both the state legislature and U.S. Congress.  He was one of only a hand full of people to have served both in the U.S. Congress and the Congress of the Confederate States of America when he served in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War.  Before reaching the state’s highest court, he had been circuit judge of Bath County.  His family was plagued with an incredible amount of violence.  Judge Elliott’s father had killed another man; one of his brothers was killed during the Civil War; another brother was killed by another brother; and yet another brother had gone insane and shot himself.

Just a couple of weeks before the murder, Judge Elliott had issued an opinion wherein the state’s highest court had ruled against Buford.  Elliott had written the opinion.  Actually, it was against the estate of his dead sister.  Buford had been acting as the administrator.  It was a complicated land deal in which his sister lost her property.  Although his sister had died during the action, Buford still perceived the adverse ruling as being directed against her.  Apparently, he believed that the stress of the litigation was what had killed his sibling.  In explaining the killing of Judge Elliott, he said that his sister had been robbed and murdered by the decision of the court.  A short time before he shot Judge Elliott, he had gone to her grave and sworn to avenge her cause.

In his meandering written confession to the crime, the disturbed Buford proclaimed how his first intention was to kill Court of Appeals Judge William S. Pryor.  He decided against killing Pryor “because of his children.” He had hard feelings towards Pryor because he thought that judge “knew how my sister had been wronged and could have controlled the decision.”  In truth, because of Judge Pryor’s prior knowledge about the case, the jurist had appropriately and ethically recused himself from sitting on the case.  He wasn’t even involved in the decision.

After the shooting, Buford immediately gave up his weapon and peacefully—even cordially—surrendered to the sheriff.  In fact, he had taken his hat off of his head and placed it under the head of the dying judge on the ground.

It soon became apparent to all that Thomas Buford had serious mental problems.  He “wasn’t right.”  Although quite educated and a solid citizen before, he had become so possessed by his sister’s lawsuit that he had lost his reason.

View from Capital Cemetery Overlooking Frankfort

Frankfort and the entire state were shocked by the tragedy.  Governor James B. McCreary issued a proclamation declaring both Elliot’s virtues and the profound sadness felt by his loss.  All state offices were closed the afternoon of his funeral.

The killing of Judge John Elliott on that gusty March afternoon created one of those staggering tragedies from which we as a people are left bewildered and frustrated.  A very good man and dedicated public servant had been savagely and senselessly struck down in broad daylight on a public street.  Yet, when the dust had settled and we reached out to grab the guilty culprit, we were staring at a lunatic—a person who was babbling both hatred and kindness toward his victim; making sense of it all and yet not making sense of it all.

In the trial of Thomas Buford, the Commonwealth of Kentucky was faced once again with the enduring question of what we do with people who do terrible things, but who have lost their senses to the point that it is not really the person’s own free will but the demons within the bubbling cauldron of his diseased mind.  When is a person crazy or when is that person just evil?  Or more perplexing, when is he both?

The murder case was moved to Owen County and finally went to trial in January of 1881. Numerous witnesses, including many prominent men, testified that they thought the defendant was insane.  Forty-four witnesses in all were called by the defense, almost all going to his insanity.  His lawyer, George Curtis, made a magnificent closing argument on behalf of his client.  He reminded the jury of the law of insanity at that time, which is basically unchanged to this day.  “You must remember, also, gentlemen of the jury that the legal test is ability to comprehend the moral character of the act committed and the power of will to govern one’s action in obedience to the judgment.”

The jury found Thomas Buford not guilty by reason of insanity.  The judge ordered that he be taken to the asylum in Anchorage, Kentucky.  Totally disconnected from reality, Buford airily protested that it was a waste of time and that he had “rather be out hunting and fishing.”  Not long after he arrived, Buford escaped from the mental institution and fled to Indiana.  That state refused to recognize our extradition efforts since he had not been convicted.

Today, the martyred judge lies sleeping in the Capitol Cemetery which overlooks the Kentucky River and the picturesque city of Frankfort.  The words on his monument proclaim his lasting legacy: “Assassinated for having done his duty as a Judge.”