Judge David Dreyer: Law is about people, emotion and all

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Indiana Lawyer Commentary

IJA-Dreyer-DavidMy daughter lives in Oregon but she never calls. But the other night she did text. Of course I did not find it until later, and it simply reported in plain terms the largest historical event of her young adult life. No glee, no joy, just a simple statement about what happened in Pakistan. But I have not been able to stop thinking what made it so important to contact her parents.

I am reminded of two different times when, as a practicing lawyer, I was conducting a direct examination. One time years ago, it was a routine uncontested divorce final hearing – no problems, no issues. But when I simply asked, “Is your marriage irretrievably broken?” (required legal talk), my client stopped, looked down, and struggled to answer through bitter, grieving tears – I never saw this coming. I had to help her from the courtroom. Some years later, I was questioning a young witness during the Mike Tyson grand jury investigation. When I asked her about her observations of the victim the day after the rape, she stopped and suddenly ran out of the room sobbing. Again, I did not see this coming, and I spent the next hour consoling this young person who had such strong unrealized feelings that could not be suppressed.

We lawyers and judges are privileged, whether we like it or not, to powerful and unpredictable human emotions. “Law is about people,” someone once said. And people are everywhere in the law – even corporations are made up of shareholders and employees. There are landowners, spouses, injured plaintiffs, witnesses, court staff, etc. One of my most moving experiences as a judge occurred one afternoon in an almost empty courtroom, with just me, a lawyer, a court reporter, and a woman who had lost her son in a car accident. It was an uncontested damages hearing for a default judgment, and the grieving mother had to briefly describe her pain and suffering for the record to justify the uncollectible judgment. Who was I to whom she had to justify her grief? As I watched, I felt so utterly unworthy to share such a dignified moment with such a noble person. Again, I did not see it coming. After the brief hearing, I came down, hugged her, and thanked her for doing something so difficult. Indeed, the law is an entirely human enterprise.

Judges are humans, too, and can also sometimes be confidantes and consolers. I have had more than one instance in my 14 judicial years when lawyers (men and women) shared personal and professional problems in my office with tears and worry. But nothing is so weighty as the conflict and concern that arises when a lawyer faces a tough case – and the burden gets to them when they don’t see it coming.

So why are so many lawyers unhappy if there is so much rich human experience bounding about? Experts generally point to several factors which usually become reported as too much hard work, too little gratification, and the overall sense that one will never do anything like Atticus Finch, or even one of those guys on “Law & Order.” To which we must say, “So what?” Unhappiness does not spring from a lack of experiences, but rather a lack of appreciation when they come our way so unexpectedly. When I find myself surprised because I didn’t see something coming, that is an epiphany of sorts. I can realize that my work then allows me to perhaps share – a time, a solution, a promise to work forward – that is unique to that case and to that person, whether that person is a corporation or a grieving mom.

So when we are faced with that occasional uncivil moment with a judge, opposing counsel, even a colleague at the firm, we will do well to allow them to be human. Our trained logic and reason may get us only so far, because as Blaise Pascal famously observed, “The heart has reasons that Reason does not know.” It is not trite to think that the merits of a common courtesy, a handshake, a pat on the back, a soft word of conciliation are just as important as any legal argument. It is those times that may make our profession a rewarding one, whether you are a judge, lawyer, party, witness, whatever – just as long as you are a human, it would seem. In fact, we should resolve to look for those moments, because they may come when we don’t see them coming – like a late-night text from a daughter far away.•


The Hon. David J. Dreyer
has served on the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.


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