The Judge I worked for after law school just passed away. Six weeks ago we had a reunion of clerks and he looked pretty good, vibrant and upbeat as always. But, yesterday, the pancreatic cancer he’d been battling for over a year finally took his life.
The two years I clerked for Judge Duplantier completely shaped me as a lawyer. So many of the things he said twenty years ago still reverberate in my brain (including the way he always mispronounced my last name – Swenson).
Some of his lessons were hard for me to absorb. One thing I picked up quickly was not to waste anything: not time, not words, nor food.
Section H was devoid of anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary to the efficient delivery of justice, except for a wilting plant that clung to life despite continual neglect by a succession of clerks.
The courtroom was also spare of clutter. One of the few items on the desk where the clerks sat was a small placard that had the words to be used to open court.
“Oyez, Oyez, Oyez” were the first words on the placard, except the last ‘oyez’ was stricken through. I noticed this one day and asked the senior co-clerk why the third ‘oyez’ was stricken.
He looked at me with a stern face to let me know that what he was about to impart was of utmost importance: “we only say the ‘oyez’ twice because it saves time.”
Judge Duplantier’s brisk manner, and gruff voice, unsettled many attorneys. Amazingly, though, some attorneys were breezily presumptuous, which proved not to be the optimal manner to have before the Judge.
If I said I didn’t enjoy watching those attorneys come into chambers for conferences I’d be lying.
Even a routine scheduling conference acquired some spice when a pompous attorney (usually from a big firm) loftily pronounced his schedule too full to try a case anytime in the next 12 months. The Judge would calmly pencil in a trial date that suited the others and then tell the lawyer to get one of his colleagues to try the case if he was too busy.
He didn’t do that just to make a point.
Judge Duplantier believed that everyone in the legal system had an obligation to move cases as quickly as possible, especially the lawyers.
Cases moved quickly in Section H, and the pace wasn’t going to slow down without a good reason.
But Judge Duplantier believed family always came before work.
I remember one scheduling conference with a lot of lawyers, which naturally made it hard to pick a trial date. We finally got to a point where a date looked good for everyone. Suddenly one guy start rustling his papers. Everyone turned to the middle aged lawyer who nervously informed the Judge the date was a problem for him.
The judge asked him what the problem was, and I cringed in anticipation of a stern directive.
The attorney said he had a two week vacation planned with his family and started to explain how long they’d been planning it, but the judge cut him off in mid-explanation. “I understand,” he replied.
“Family vacations are very important, so let’s look for another date.”
Working for the Judge made me think deeply about every decision I made. I never handed him a bench memo (or anything else that I’d written) unless I had carefully considered every word in the document, and knew exactly why I was using it.
If there was a typo, he’d find it.
If there was awkward phrasing or an unnecessary word, he’d strike through it.
If I cited a case for a proposition that didn’t make sense, he’d have me pull it and stand next to him as he scanned it to figure out why it didn’t apply.
I thought I was a pretty good writer in law school, and I was confident in my ability to figure out what the law was if I needed to. Within a few days of working in federal court I began to seriously doubt those skills.
Working with the Judge made you question everything you did.
Nothing was taken for granted.
After a few months I thought I was getting used to the intense scrutiny, but he could tell that I was really just getting tired of it. He didn’t waste time setting up a lecture.
One day he handed me a document that was riddled with corrections and when I grabbed it with a hint of dejection he paused for about two beats and then said, “I’m going to tell you what my uncle, Charlie Rivet, told me when I was a young lawyer: ‘if something is worth doing then it’s worth doing well.’ Understand?”
“Yes sir,” I replied sheepishly.
Some attorneys didn’t like him. He could sense it, but it didn’t faze him in the slightest.
It was one of those ‘two ships in the night’ things. They didn’t understand him, and he didn’t understand them.
There wasn’t much that he didn’t understand, but the notion of doing things in a half-hearted way truly baffled him.
If he did something, he did it exceptionally. He expected the same from those who worked with him, as well as those who appeared in his court.
Yes, he was impatient. And, yes, he was supremely confident.
The Times Picayune once published an article that identified three political leaders in New Orleans with the biggest egos. The article listed Moon Landrieu, Dutch Morial, and Adrian Duplantier.
When the Judge saw the list he immediately rang the Editor and informed him of his great displeasure “You don’t think you should be on the list?” asked the editor.
“No that’s not it,” the judge replied. “I think my name should be listed first.”
No doubt about it: Judge Duplantier could command attention, and he liked attention.
But, he used the attention he got to do some amazing things.
Judge Duplantier helped start a home for boys that gave dozens of local kids from broken homes a successful start in life. But, after founding Boys’ Hope, he didn’t just attend formal functions.
He spent most of his time collecting unused clothes and leftover food to bring to the boys at the home. Sometimes he’d invite me to come along. I was struck by how devoid of any authoritarian air he was when he visited the boys.
By the end of my clerkship I started to feel slightly more relaxed. I began to wonder how I’d remember my clerkship, especially many years later after I’d gotten comfortable practicing law.
And so here I am now, many years later, trying to remember any one of the Titanic courtroom moments that took place while I worked for the Judge.
It’s funny, but all of those monumental dramas seem hazy and unimportant.
The only memory that jumps out is a fairly mundane one, something that was part of a very predictable daily routine.
It’s 6:45 in the morning and he and I are the only ones in chambers. Everything is completely silent until I sense him padding quickly down the hallway, preceded by a booming voice:
“Hey Swenson, I was doing some ‘shower thinking’ this morning and…, say, that plant over there looks like it could use a little water, don’t ya think?”
That’s how I’ll always remember the Judge.