When I was clerking at federal court back in the mid-80’s I had the fortune to work in the same building as Michaelle Wynne.
She was one of six magistrate judges that worked in the court.
Most attorneys enjoyed appearing in front of her. She was always in a good mood, or at least she always made it seem that way.
She never got harsh with an attorney, unless they deserved it—and even then she had a way of getting her point across in a way that made the attorney more ashamed for misbehaving than ridiculed or put down.
I remember sitting in court one day when the jury was being picked and she was addressing one of the prospective jurors, asking him the preliminary questions about his marital status and his occupation.
The man gave his occupation and reported that he was not married.
Magistrate Wynne immediately exclaimed: “What? You mean to tell me that a good looking man like you isn’t married?”
I was stunned because that was, to me, such an unusual thing to say in a somber court proceeding.
But, the jury members and everyone else in the courtroom laughed and it was obvious that her remark was intended to break the tension in the room and allow everyone to relax and just be themselves.
I learned a lot from Magistrate Wynne in the two years that I clerked in the Eastern District, and I learned a lot in the years after.
She was passionate about mentoring lawyers, especially young ones.
She was always extremely busy.
And, yet, she always had time to listen to a lawyer who had a dilemma or problem.
Eleven years ago today, she died after being struck by a drunk driver while she was on her routine 5:00 am bike ride.
To this day I can’t really fathom her death. She was so full of life and so driven to be a positive force it just doesn’t seem fair that she could have suffered such a tragedy.
And it doesn’t seem fair that the rest of us (including especially her husband and three children) could be deprived of someone so gifted, so vibrant, and so inspirational.
Her funeral was held in a large church, but it still couldn’t accommodate all the people who came to mourn her loss.
I remember driving away from the funeral crying and thinking about how to make sense of what had happened when a song came on the car stereo, and it seemed so perfect.
It was a song by Sting called Fragile and it reminded me that the thing I cherished most about Magistrate Wynne was that she made me feel like it was okay to be myself as I practiced law.
I didn’t have to be a humorless law-zealot; I could be casual and put people at ease.
I chose the name ‘Ernie the Attorney’ when I was picking the name because that’s what she used to call me.
So, whenever people tell me that they like the name of this blog, and say it’s because it sounds so down, to earth I think of Magistrate Wynne.
Somehow I feel like she is still hovering nearby, encouraging me to do a good job practicing law.
But above all, reminding me not to take myself too seriously.