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.

Hobson Monument in Charleston

We celebrated the official birth of the United States on July 4. It was our 234th birthday.

Across the land, this holiday is always celebrated by picnics, fireworks and speeches. And ceremonies of all kinds.

But there are also monuments across the country which remind us that this birthday is not celebrated without cost. Most of these commemorate the men who lost their lives on foreign battle fields, or even here at home during our Civil War.

But there are few which record tragedies mostly forgotten. Tragedies which brought broken hearts, devastated lives, and tremendous sadness to families and friends.

There is a monument at the Battery in Charleston which denotes one such tragedy. On the night of April 26, 1952, the navy destroyer USS Hobson was participating in training maneuvers out of Charleston in the mid-Atlantic. It was escorting the carrier USS Wasp. They collided and the Hobson was cut in half. It sunk within four minutes, losing 176 of its crew. Their names and hometowns are on that monument. Also, a stone from each of the 38 states yielding sons to this loss combine to help make up the base.

I visited this monument on this 4th of July weekend. One such name that I saw was Cecil Mauzy from the little west Kentucky burg of Draksboro, Kentucky. I thought of the tremendous pain and heartache this must have caused his family when they received that fateful call. Seeing that name etched in the stone made me wonder. Does anyone come to this marker anymore? Does anyone study the names? Does anyone give reverence to these many lives that died serving their country, just as surely as if they had died in the Battle of Guadalcanal or some other epic battle spot. So, I went on line. Mauzy is an unusual name for west Kentucky. I found Bill Mauzy in the village of Beechmont, not far from Drakesboro. I called him. He was Cecil Mauzy’s brother, some five years younger. His brother had lied about his age, joining the Navy at the end of World War II, and had remained in the service. No doubt Cecil’s family was relieved and happy at the conclusion of that war, thinking he was at last out of harm’s way.

Bill Mauzy told me that his mother—now dead—never got over this tragedy which seared its way through this humble family of America 58 years ago. I expressed my condolences to him. It was all I could say. And thank you. Thank you for what your family did for my country.

There were 175 more names on that monument. One hundred and seventy five more vacant chairs at the tables; empty beds; lost hopes and dreams fondly remembered in fading gray photographs in which long ago smiles still water the eyes. The thought weighs down upon the soul like a leaden winter sky.

So, as we yearly celebrate our country’s birthday, we must honor not only those who helped give this country birth – the Jeffersons, Franklins, Washingtons and Hancocks – but also those who have kept it alive. The famous and not so famous. Mostly, the not so famous.

Thousands, perhaps millions, of teaming tourists have streamed by that monument on the Battery in Charleston. It occasionally will receive a glance, maybe even a quick read of the larger print. But no one ever studies the names, the hometowns, the real life tears and suffering these 176 fading names represent. We hurry along with squealing kids with ice cream cones, friends to meet, sites to see. Freedoms to enjoy.

So, I paused and peered at the name. Cecil Mauzy. I wondered what he was like. Was he handsome or plain? Big ears and crooked teeth or silver screen jaw and hair? Were his last words spoken in calm conversation during his last supper that fateful evening born on that same west Kentucky accent as mine? In that we share the kindred circle.

USS Hobson At Sail

Here’s to you Cecil. Couldst thou know? And wouldst us all. How many of our meager names, 58 years from our demise, will stop the feet of rank strangers a thousand miles from home and be thoughtfully mouthed with reverence as the name upon the stone is studied? Your name. Your life. Your immortality.

Let us remember the monuments across this great land which speak for the dead. Look at the hungry sea and the rolling lands and commemorate all those who have died there, and in dying helped afford us the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. It’s a good way to celebrate the 4th of July. It’s a good way to celebrate every holiday. In fact, it’s something we should think of every day.

Any father who has raised children knows this truth. There is no playbook for raising children that insures victory. No easy formula, no set rules—in short, no instructions written on the back of each baby to follow in the rearing of a productive, law abiding, stable human being. All too much we are aware that there are wonderful parents whose kid doesn’t turn out so wonderful. There are also not so wonderful parents who turn out wonderful kids.

And even when a father’s head presses the dying pillow, he still doesn’t know for sure. I’ve sent elderly people to prison whose parents have long passed from this world.If you have raised kids and they are good people not in prison, or dysfunctional, don’t slap yourself on the back. Thank the good Lord. Therefore, it would be presumptuous for any of us to lay claim to any special knowledge as to how to succeed in the most important job any man will ever have.

However, if I had a loaded gun put to my head and commanded to write my own personal guidelines for a father to follow in raising children, here is what I’d write:

1. Take your children to church. Many lament the hypocrisy of church members and preachers to rationalize not giving their children a religious upbringing. This is a cop out. Remember, father of the young, it’s not about you; it’s about them. The record is clear, church going children have a better shot at making it morally and spiritually than non-church going youngsters. And there is one lasting legacy assured to all parents who take their kids to church. No matter where they end up in the vast sea of theology, they will always know you cared.

2. Throw out the television. This is the edict that earned for me from my children the label “weirdo Dad.” Now with my children grown, every single one of them will tell you today it made a positive difference in their lives. “But there are some good things on TV,” is the standard retort I receive from others. And, of course, there are. Just as there is some pretty neat stuff out at the city dump if you care to go out and dig around in the rubbish.

3. Stay married to Mom. If you haven’t stayed married to Mom, at least treat the mother of your children the way you would want your mom to be treated. Whether you are still married to mom or not, how you and your children’s mom get along will still affect their welfare.

4. Make few rules. Curfews are, of course, a must for teenagers. Other than that, you might get by with the commandment, “Do what you’re told.” That should about cover it.

5. Enforce the rules no matter what.

6. Ask one question of your child each day. I don’t mean the old stale inquiry, “How was your day?” Something that requires your child to think, reflect, and verbalize. “What did you talk about in history today?” is a little better. This not only requires your child to communicate a little. A lot of times it gives you an idea of where your child has been all day mentally. If your child seems to be remote and adrift, send him or her to their room and require them to write down five things that they believe in. It will tell you more about your child than a thousand hours of counseling.

7. Say grace at meals. Every child in America should be thankful.

8. Share one meal each day. For most of us men, this will require some strict attention to rule number three. The mother of my children deserves a medal and a pension for her devotion to this cause.

9. Suffer in silence. This (outside of banning TV) may be the toughest rule to follow. This is especially true with school age children. There will be injustices and slights imposed upon your children by well meaning teachers, principals, and coaches from the first day they enter school. Unless they are major eruptions in your child’s life, never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. Children must learn early that life is not always just, fair, or enjoyable. The younger they learn to cope with this on their own, the better. If there are unfair teachers and coaches, there will be unfair employers and laws they will have to follow as grown men and women. And here’s a brutal truth. Most times when dealing with disagreements with school bosses, your child will be in the wrong. Don’t be an enabler. It bears bitter fruit later when it’s drugs and sex instead of playing time on the team or a bad grade in Algebra.

10. Teach by example. When all is said and done, “Values are caught, more than taught.” And be careful what you say. Don’t pass your prejudices along to your children. For instance, we would have all been better off if previous generations of parents in the south had carried their racist views unspoken to their graves.

So there you have it. You can now take the gun away from your head.
Being a father is the most important job any man will ever have. If you’re not a father, you are still a father figure to many youngsters in your community. All men will tell you that they have been strongly influences by other men other than their fathers.

So, Father’s Day should be a day when all men, whether they have children of their own or not, should rededicate themselves to being the very best they can be.
There is a picture on my wall at home of the great, late baseball announcer Jack Buck. It is inscribed to my children, but is an apt instruction to all men everywhere.
“Good, better, best. Forget all the rest. First be good. Then be better, but don’t quit till you’re the best.”

Happy Father’s Day!


June 18, 2010

We continue to see mediocre professional athletes sign contracts for millions of dollars a year. I have long lost the ability to fathom how any athlete is worth that kind of money. I’m not envious, but I’m always struck by the injustice of it.

How can we pay professional athletes that type of money to play a game, and those who teach and mold our future be paid such a paltry sum in comparison? Whether a major league baseball player has a banner next year, or whether he breaks every record in the books, it will have not one iota of impact on what kind of children we raise. It will not affect the quality of our public officials nor will it determine who will be performing surgery, repairing cars, or educating our young twenty years down the road.But teachers do.

Think about this. Our future depends upon our children. In our society today, who has children in their custody and control most of the time?
Not parents. The large percentage of the time when children are in the custody of their parents, they are not under their control. They are either glued to the television set, out running around with their friends, or asleep. The answer of course is teachers.

From the time that they begin as mere babies in preschool and over the next twelve to twenty years, young minds, personalities, and attitudes are daily molded by people who we pay less each year than Derek Jeter will make with one at bat.One could argue that one good thing about the low teachers’ salary is that we get very good people to teach our children who are not motivated by money. Most all of them could be doing better financially in other trades, occupations and professions. Fortunately for all of us, they recognize the grand purpose in their calling.That purpose is what makes life with living.

We can fight drugs, crime, violence and lawlessness on a grand and massive scale. Judges can send people to the penitentiary until they are brimming over with humanity. But no one has a great influence on the direction young people will take than those who are with them most of the time in their younger years.
Read a story about an errant kid gone straight, humble beginnings leading to grand and glorious heights, success out of the ashes of despair, and you will almost always find a teacher or a coach who is the main person who made a difference.

There is a saying, which I like, “You never know to whom you are speaking when you talk to a child.” It may be a future Stephen Spielburg, Billy Graham or Sandra Day O’Connor. Or it may simply be someone who does not reach the height of fame and fortune but goes to work everyday, pays taxes, is law abiding and makes a contribution.
It is reported that the ancient Greek teacher, Socrates, taught under a shade tree. Many teachers undoubtedly envy such simplicity. Today because of state, federal, and local regulations and guidelines, they are inundated with paperwork, deadlines, forms, and reports which have—at least in their eyes—very little to do with their classroom performance. Those who teach in special education these days deserve a Purple Heart and a pension.

Years ago there was a clear line of separation between what went on at home and what went on at school. That no longer exists. With the increasing number of dysfunctional families, substance abuse, divorce, and other types of social maladies occurring, they all spill over into the classroom. Teachers and the entire school system are looked to more and more as being people who must meet some of the larger social needs and not just the teaching of reading and arithmetic.

Henry Books Adams placed the role of the teacher in the long perspective when he wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell when his influence stops.” No one takes on the awesome task of teaching because of money. But it would say more of us as a society if we paid then more to acknowledge their true worth.

An Imperfect System

December 19, 2009

What is your major complaint about the justice system in the community where you live?

If you have had an occasion to go to court, you may not have been happy with the decision that was made, by either the judge or the jury. That is understandable. Unfortunately, by the nature of the beast, someone loses almost every time. Strange as it may sound, hardly anyone ever wins.

Besides losing in court, if you have had the experience, what was your major complaint about the system?

Troubles and challenges of the justice system.

First is the lack of access to our courts. Bringing your complaints or grievances into the court system has become far too expensive. If you have sustained a financial loss, you may be either reluctant or even unable to pay out money for a lawyer to represent you in court. Therefore, your problem festers, worsens, and the court system becomes out of reach for you in helping you solve your problems.

Of course, you can always represent yourself in court. This can be very dangerous, however, especially if you are going up against an opposing party who is represented by an attorney. Some cases—like our Small Claims Court and District Court—can be fairly simply stated and presented. In most instances, however, the presentation of the proof not only gets complicated because of our Rules of Evidence, but also the law must be understood and the average citizen is not schooled in the law.

A second general complaint about our justice system is delay. The greatest nemesis to justice is the length of time it takes a case to be concluded. Granted our dockets are crowded and there are limited judges and trial days on the calendar. However, all too often, judges and lawyers are guilty of letting cases languish.

Unless you have had a case in court—be it civil or criminal—you will never understand the emotional drain that it has upon a person’s life. In many instances, even an adverse ruling is better than no ruling at all.

Expediting cases and moving them along should be the top priority of any court system. Justice delayed is not only justice denied, but also justice delayed gives judges, lawyers, and the court system a black eye.

Lastly, one of the major complaints about our court system is that even after one has access to the courts and finally gets their case to court, they are not granted sufficient time or opportunity to have their full say. That is why it is important that court proceedings be orderly and deliberate. In other words, while heavy dockets might put pressure on judges and lawyers to move cases rapidly, it is also important to maintain a balance of efficiently disposing of people’s problems, yet at the same time doing it in a way that gives them the feeling that they have been fully heard. This can be a delicate balance.

The Rules of Evidence, especially relevancy, will restrict somewhat people from venting in court unnecessarily. If a case is being tried about a property line dispute, juries and judges do not want to waste their time hearing about the feuds of the adjoining landowner’s grandparents. At least, not unless it is in some way tied in to the case before them.

In Kentucky, we are trying to improve access to our courts in various ways. First of all, there are legal services available through government funding offices, as well as private lawyers who participate in pro bono work, which can assist people who lack the financial means to hire their own lawyer. In some circuits, there are also forms available so that people can get certain matters back before the court without retaining a lawyer. These forms deal primarily with child support and child visitation. To learn more about all of these services, one should contact their local Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

In trying to deal with delay, the court often refers matters to mediation. A Mediator is a person, normally a lawyer, who is independent and can bring the parties together and attempt to help them resolve the matter prior to having to go to trial. In most instances, this gives the parties not only an opportunity to vent their feelings and present their side, but also brings the stabilizing force of an objective evaluator into the case. We have learned that mediation has settles most cases, sometimes months before they are scheduled for trial, with much less expense and to everyone’s satisfaction.

Mediation also gives the parties an opportunity to not only expedite their case, but also be able to state their position adequately. It is normally done in an informal setting to the sympathetic ear of the mediator.

In spite of all these efforts, there will be complaints about our court system that will be justified. That is because we live in an imperfect world, and our court system consists of imperfect human beings. We who participate in it, however, should always be striving to enhance the image of our justice system by confronting the major complaints that people have of it.

A Felony Conviction

December 19, 2009

Columnist Jim Davidson once wrote an article about the difficulty that ex-convicts have in finding employment once they leave prison.  His bottom line was this: “Many inmates go back to prison because they can’t find a job and have to revert to their old ways to survive.”

Perhaps the most lasting penalty which a criminal has to suffer is the stigma of being a “convicted felon.”  (A felony is any crime for which a person can be sent to the penitentiary.)

As a person who grew up across from the Kentucky State Penitentiary, and who has served his entire career dealing with our criminal justice system, I have a few thoughts to share.  Hopefully, these reflections will be especially helpful to employers who may be considering hiring a convicted felon.

First of all, do not blow out of proportion the fact that a person has been convicted of a felony.  I have a book entitled, “Kentucky Justice,” which lists all the crimes in Kentucky back in the year 1823.  In looking through this book, it appears that less than 25 of the crimes listed are designated as felonies.  Today, in the year 2008, we have well over a 1,000 felony crimes in the state of Kentucky.

Needless to say, it is a lot easier to get convicted of a felony today than at any other time in our past.  For instance, in Kentucky it is a felony for anyone, other than a licensed physician, to provide treatment for cancer.  Does that mean that you could be sent to the penitentiary for simply giving ginseng to a dying relative?

It may surprise many to learn that yes, even good people make serious mistakes.  Just as every veteran did not storm San Juan Hill or the beaches of Normandy, nor even participate in combat, not every convicted felon is either dangerous, untrustworthy, or a bad person.

First of all, there are felonies; and then there are felonies.  Check out the nature of the crime.  It should be a no-brainer that a person who has been convicted of a crime involving children should not be hired to a position in a school or day-care facility.  Also, it would probably not be a good idea to have a convicted ax murderer working in your clothing store.  Most importantly, an employer must look to the person’s track record.  Anyone can make a mistake, but when the mistakes begin to form a pattern of crime, such history must be given more weight.

A felony conviction, however, is a fact that an employer cannot ignore.  It should serve as a red flag, indicating that the potential employee’s background needs further investigation.  But it should not be the kiss of death.  If a person checks the box “convicted felon” on his or her application, the door to employment should not be automatically closed unless, of course, the law prohibits a convicted felon from holding that job.  The local sheriff, prosecutor, or probation officer can provide potential employers information about a person’s background and the nature of the crime.  They may even confidentially provide their own recommendation.

Another important piece of information to know about a person convicted of a felony is the disposition of his case.  If the person was not sentenced to prison, is he still on probation, or has he successfully completed probation?  If the person did serve time in prison, has he served out his sentence, or has he successfully completed his parole supervision?

And, of course, there is always the dark specter of substance abuse.  A person convicted of an alcohol or drug related felony may well be suffering from an addiction that has not been conquered.  But if that person has accepted full responsibility for his actions, or has gone to great strides to combat his addiction through treatment and counseling, and has built up a clean track record in the process, then an employer’s risk in hiring that person may be minimized.

As a judge, I learned to place a lot of emphasis upon a defendant’s own reaction to his or her conviction.  I believe a potential employer should do the same.  If the convicted felon who is being considered for employment makes excuses or blames his bad conduct upon his mother, brother, or the sugar-coated cereal he ate as a child, then that felony conviction looms larger.  Once again, if that person sincerely acknowledges that he made a serious mistake and takes full responsibility for what he did, or is extremely sorry for his misconduct, he may well deserve a second look.

Basically, we need to think in terms of personal responsibility.  For that is the type of employee for which any employer is looking – one who will be responsible and who will carry out his assigned task as best he can.  Therefore, accepting personal responsibility for one’s own misdeeds becomes a critical consideration in making an employment decision.

The key to interviewing and hiring convicted felons is the same for hiring anyone else – common sense, good judgment, and fairness.  We have all made mistakes, some more serious than others.  I do not believe it is fair to completely shackle a person to his past mistakes.  Also, as Jim Davidson pointed out in his article, obtaining and maintaining employment is critical to the efforts of ex-convicts for staying out of trouble.  In other words, persons who are gainfully employed are less likely to commit crimes.

Let’s face it.  Good workers are sometimes hard to find.  There are a lot of convicts walking the prison yard today that I had rather have working for me than some persons I know who have never been convicted of a felony.  And there are many employers out there who will tell you about convicted felons who have given them many years of outstanding employment.

In summary, I will conclude where I began.  Keep the fact that a person is a convicted felon in the proper perspective.  Do not let it serve as an automatic rejection.