by Chad Baruch
Johnston Tobey Baruch
Not many Texas lawyers probably have had the interesting experience of being nearly naked on the first floor of a federal courthouse. I recently did. And what an adventure it was!
State Bar of Texas Board Chair Jerry Alexander led a team of prominent Dallas trial lawyers last year in a civil lawsuit involving a Ponzi scheme. He and the other trial lawyers retained me to handle an appeal to the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Our case was set for argument the morning of July 10—the very morning that Tropical Storm Barry slammed into the city with devastating force.
Our case was the last of the morning docket, meaning we did not have to be at the courthouse until 10:00 a.m. And that, as it turned out, was the genesis of our problems. Lawyers in the other cases had to report much earlier and were inside the courthouse before the storm rolled in.
By 9:45, the floodwaters had crossed the sidewalk and begun seeping into the lobby of our hotel. It was only a block to the courthouse—but by now three feet of water was running through the streets. As I stood in the lobby wearing tennis shoes, jeans, and a Johnny Cash t-shirt contemplating my next move, Jerry descended down the hotel steps. What a glorious sight! Clad head-to-toe in clear trash bags, he looked like Wild Bill Hickock attending a Halloween party dressed as the Michelin Man. Complete strangers were stopping to take photographs of him.
Upon further reflection, Jerry concluded that his trash bags probably were not a sufficient match for the concrete sidewalks and three-foot floodwaters. We decided the best option had to be carrying our clothes and then changing in the courthouse. Minutes later, Jerry and I stood in the lobby (with additional team member Buzz Rochelle) with our pants rolled up to our mid-thighs, legal papers in one hand and clothing in the other, all protected by trash bags.
With all of the John Wayne bravado I could muster, I shouted “No time like the present” and charged out the front door with Jerry in close pursuit. After about 20 feet, I realized that I had no interest in walking an entire city block in running floodwaters. Directly across the street sat a city park—on elevated ground! If we could make it to the park, then all we would have to endure for the block-long walk to the courthouse would be the torrential downpour and wind. I quickly decided that braving the three feet of water necessary to cross the street was worth making the remaining journey on elevated ground. Shouting my new plan to Jerry, I stepped off the curb and into the street.
My first thought was that what they tell you on television really is true—stepping into three feet of running water is a terrible idea. The force of the water knocked me sideways and nearly swept me off my feet. The only saving grace was my instant realization that the street I was on dead-ends into the Fifth Circuit. Worst-case scenario, I simply would be washed up onto the front steps of the courthouse.
But, summoning my inner Emmitt Smith, I somehow managed to stay upright and begin slogging my way through the street. Halfway across, I heard Jerry step into the street behind me. His strangled cry suggested that he too had underestimated the force of the running water. A moment later, I heard him shout out “This reminds me of the Army; that’s the last time I did something this stupid for the government!”
In what could only be the result of divine intervention, we both made it safely across the street, through the park, and to the courthouse steps. By now completely drenched and disheveled, I threw open the front door of the courthouse. The deputy marshal on duty made a clearly perceptible move toward his weapon when he saw us. Thankfully—no doubt drawing on his years of law enforcement experience—he immediately concluded that we were not terrorists but just garden-variety idiots. Doing their best to keep a straight face—though not succeeding very well—the deputies cleared us through security and directed us to the men’s restroom. We crossed the majestic lobby with all the dignity we could muster in light of squishing noise we now made with each step.
Upon entering the restroom, we began the task of disrobing, drying off and cleaning up, and dressing for court. Buzz joined us minutes later. Just as the three of us were stripped down to our underwear—and that really was a blessing, because only moments before I been Full Monty—a gentleman opened the door of the restroom and began to walk inside. The first thing he saw was the three of us, standing nearly nude together in the middle of the restroom. He froze, regarding us with a mixture of puzzlement and horror. Jerry looked up and said quietly: “We’re a very close group.” The fellow replied “I think I will use the next one” and walked out. By now, nothing could faze us; we shrugged and continued dressing.
We made it upstairs looking dry, dapper, and prepared for argument. And then we saw the opposing team of lawyers from Oklahoma. Only then did we realize that our bathroom intruder was a member of the opposing counsel team. One can only imagine the stories now being told in Oklahoma City about the bizarre nude bonding rituals that Dallas lawyers go through in the courthouse before big hearings.
Oh yeah, and we had an oral argument that morning too. But somehow that was overshadowed . . . .
The news coming out of New York recently should have caused lawyers everywhere to collectively shudder: