July 9, 2006
I got to the office at my usual time, about six in the morning, and was working on my second cup of coffee when Phil ambled in about a half hour later. He got his own cup, then walked into my office and plopped himself into the chair across the desk from me. "Well, the Indians sucked," he said.
I typed out a last line. "Why the past tense?"
"Yeah," he chuckled, taking a tentative sip of his coffee. "Saw Judge Manos died." Another sip. "Jeez, he was a tough old bird. Remember the first time I had something with him, my first case in Federal court, asked another lawyer what Manos was like, guy says, 'Well, kid, let me put it this way. If I ordered twenty tons of sonsofbitches, and you sent me John Manos on a flatcar, I'd call it substantial performance.'" He'd decided the coffee was too hot yet. "Didn't care for him much."
"The other lawyer?"
"No, Manos. Thought he was a bully."
"Oh, he was tough, but he was fair."
"You think so?"
I leaned back in the chair. "A while back I had a case, home contractor who was doing the routine down in the ghetto, going to door to door, selling home improvement jobs, you know, $20,000 for a new kitchen in a house that's worth maybe thirty. He'd get them to sign mortgages by telling them he'd add a bit to it so he could put a couple grand in their pockets. Of course, he had people sign the disclosure forms in blank, so they had no idea what interest they were being charged, what their payments were. Then the contractor would sell the mortgages to an outfit in Texas, get eighty cents on the dollar. Of course, the people couldn't make the payments, so the mortgage company would foreclose.
"Anyway, some lawyer, a black kid, just out of law school, working out of his home in the Heights, got about fifteen of the cases together, and sued the contractor and the company he was selling the paper to. The contractor hired a lawyer I used to be friends with, and he brought me in on the case to do the research, pleadings, that sort of stuff.
"The case was assigned to Manos, and before the pretrial my friend's talking about how Manos is going to tear this young lawyer a new one, scare the hell out of him, maybe get him to dismiss. Worst case scenario, pressure him to settle the case on the cheap.
"So we go to the pretrial, and after Manos talks to both sides for a couple of minutes, he asks the plaintiff's lawyer to excuse himself. Then he turns to us and says, 'This is what your clients are going to do. They're going to cancel each of the mortgages. They're going to pay each plaintiff fifteen thousand dollars. And they're going to pay thirty thousand dollars for plaintiff's attorney fees.' He stopped and looked us dead in the eye. 'And if they don't do that, I'm going to refer this case over to the US Attorney for prosecution.'"
Phil grinned. "Guess you settled the case, huh?"
I smiled. "I guess we did."
"Pretty good payday for the lawyer and his clients."
"Yeah, but it was a fair result. Know what I mean?"
He nodded. The coffee had cooled; he took a couple more sips, then drained the cup. "That story makes me feel better about Manos," he said as he stood up.
"Hey, Phil," I called to him as he started to walk out. "What's the difference between God and a Federal judge?"
He paused in the doorway. "Don't know."
"God doesn't think he's a Federal judge."
Phil laughed. He left, and I went back to work.