I was 16 years old when I made my first court appearance. It was a speeding ticket issued by then-Wilmington police officer Tom White in 1967.
I recall Officer White as being somewhat kind to me that night, leading me to think, or at least hope, that the infraction was not really a big deal. I learned later that Tom White knew my father and, more importantly, he knew Juvenile Judge Paul Riley. I think Officer White understood that I was in for a hard lesson, so he was just going to play the “good cop” role.
I was one of the oldest members of my sophomore class at the brand new Clinton-Massie High School, and living in Clarksville required any self-respecting 16-year-old to have a driver’s license.
My parents never understood the need to go to Wilmington four or five nights each week just to hang out with friends that you could see each day at school. To them, the Frisch’s Mel-O-Dee restaurant was a place to eat once a month, and they certainly did not understand why one would go there to park, order one Coke, and talk to people for three hours.
My parents didn’t understand much about teenagers’ social habits in the ’60s, or so I thought.
As it turned out, my father was very aware of the social implications of a teenager having a driver’s license, and then, in a flash, not having anything to drive.
Tom White’s kindness a few weeks earlier was starting to seem in the distant past, but then I made that first, and only, court appearance with Judge Paul Riley. Holy crap! My father sat next to me in that huge courtroom while Judge Riley peppered me with questions about why I was speeding, why I thought I could ignore the law, and why I thought I had the right to drive someone else’s car in such a reckless manner.
Not once did my father try to defend me. I mean, the car’s speedometer was not always accurate, and maybe the speed limit wasn’t well marked, but my father just sat there, as if he were in cahoots with the judge.
Now, quite honestly, I don’t remember anything I said in my own defense, and perhaps my memories of the experience are tainted by the passage of time. However, I vividly recall the feeling of helplessness on that day as Judge Riley taught a 16-year-old kid what happens in his courtroom when you violate the law.
I’m just thankful I didn’t drink a big Coke before going to court because I would have wet myself right there in the courtroom. Not only did I leave that temple of justice without a driver’s license for 90 days, I had to write a letter of apology to Tom White and to my parents, plus I had to ride the school bus back and forth to school for 90 days.
I could only drive with one of my parents in the car.
I was humiliated.
Interestingly, it would be another 16 years before I stood in front of Judge Paul Riley again. I had just passed the bar exam and returned to Wilmington to practice law with Jerry Bryant.
Within the first week, I received a message from Judge Riley’s secretary that he wanted to see me in his office. I thought, “Dear God, what now?” as I was emotionally reduced to that 16-year-old kid who dared drive faster than the speed limit in his county! Was I about to be chastised again, some 16 years later? “Is that even legal?” I thought to myself?
That afternoon, I walked down to the courthouse, stopping on the first floor to empty my bladder — I was taking no chances. Up on the third floor, I was ushered into Judge Riley’s office. He was now a common pleas judge, maybe in search of new prey.
Anyway, as I walked in, he stood up, walked toward me, and with outstretched hand, said, “I just wanted to personally welcome you to the practice of law. I’m sure your parents are very proud of your accomplishments.”
For the next six years, until he retired, I always felt welcome in his office to talk and ask for advice, although being in his courtroom was still a formal and judicious affair.
A few lawyers accused him of falling asleep during jury trials. One day a defense attorney pushed a book off of the table in hopes of waking him up. Without flinching or opening his eyes, Judge Riley said, “Nice try, Mr. Bryant. I’m wide awake.”
I remember a framed quote that always hung in his chambers.
“The Lawyer Says: Know all the persons by these presents that I hereby give, grant, bargain, sell, release, convey, transfer, and quit claim all my right, title, interest, benefit, and use whatever in, of, and concerning this chattel, known as an orange, or Citrus Orantium, together with all the appurtenances thereto of skin, pulp, pip, rind, seeds, and juice, to have and to hold the said orange together with its skin, pulp, pip, rind, seeds, and juice, for his own use and behoof, to himself and his heirs, in fee simple forever, free from all liens, encumbrances, easements, limitations, restraints, or conditions whatsoever, any and all prior deeds, transfers, or other documents whatsoever, now or anywhere made, to the contrary notwithstanding, with full power to bite, cut, suck, or otherwise eat the said orange or to give away the same, with or without its skin, pulp, pip, rind, seeds, or juice.”
“The normal person says: Here, have an orange.”
As I read it, Judge Riley said this framed quote might be the most important rule of practice. He was right. Most lawyers talk too much.
After Judge Riley passed away in 1992, his wife, Jean, gave me that framed quote.
He taught me a lot about the practice of law. What I wish I had asked him about was his Purple Heart and Bronze Star awarded as a wounded Marine in World War II in Okinawa. That would have been an interesting story, and I can bet that a few Japanese soldiers might have wet their pants during battle with the judge.
Of course, in later years, he would have been happy just giving them an orange.
Dennis Mattingly is a resident of Wilmington.