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, not even 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, many attorneys were oblivious to the judge’s manner.
This always proved to be sub-optimal.
For example, often a pompous attorney (usually from a big firm) would come in for a scheduling conference. Then he would loftily pronounce his schedule too full to try a case anytime in the next 12 months.
The Judge would calmly find out what date was mutually agreeable to the other lawyers. Then he’d pencil in that date as he told the arrogant lawyer “get one of your colleagues to try the case if you’re 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, except a 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.”
Some attorneys didn’t like him. Mostly, they couldn’t fathom his way of doing things.
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 the judge didn’t understand, but the notion of doing things in a half-hearted way truly baffled him.
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.
Sometimes this was frustrating.
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.
If Judge Duplantier did something, he did it exceptionally. And so he expected the same from those who worked with him, as well as those who appeared in his court.
Yes, he was impatient. But only because he was driven to accomplish so much.
And, yes, he was supremely confident also.
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.
But, he used the attention to do 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.
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This was a wonderful tribute, Ernie, and yes, you are a fine writer. Best, mv
All too often these days a “gruff manner” is nothing more than an attempt to mask incompetence. Not so with Judge Duplantier. He expected excellence because he exhibited it. But with Judge Duplantier, we not only saw competence but a willingness to go the extra distance. I remember taking a course from him at Loyola. After speaking with the Dean, I approached the Judge to see whether he would be willing to bring an actual trial to the law school, as a learning experience for us. I expected a “we’ll see, I’ll get back to you.” Not with Judge Duplantier. “We’ll do it next Wednesday. I know exactly what case. I’ll tell the lawyers that we’ll have a change of venue.” He brought a jury trial, as promised.
But it was his other side that I will always remember. Years later, I recall a status conference in his chambers, scheduled for 3:30. One lawyer wandered in at 3:40, and we all immediately looked to the Judge to see how he would react. Judge Duplantier called the 3:30 start-up time to his attention. The lawyer opened his file, and respectfully showed the Judge that his Notice stated 3:45. Judge Duplantier didn’t miss a beat: “Well, you should have known it was 3:30.” And out of the corner of my eye, I detected a blink from the “gruff” Judge Duplantier.
My sympathy to his family, with thanks for sharing him with us.
my first trial was a judge trial before j. duplantier in cdc nearly 31 years ago. i was a lawyer for about a month when i tried that simple little case. i lost it ugly. every objection, i was on the losing side as i fumbled to the inevitable decision against my client. i ended the trial questioning whether i should have gone to truck driving school instead of law school. i guess it showed on my face for after i thanked the judge as he was leaving the courtroom he turned and said, “it’ll get better.” then he quickly added, “i sure hope so.” but it was the smile that accompanied his statement that i remember most which made me feel like it was worth getting back up on that horse. thanks, judge.
Judge Duplantier was (and will always be) simply Uncle A. My father’s uncle, Adrian represented the true patriarch of the Duplantier side of the family. Fishing in Gulfport, shrimp and crabs in the back yard of he and Sally’s New Orleans home, funny, gumbo obsessed…that is how I remember him. He gave a speech at my wedding some five years ago, as I prepared for my first year of law school in upstate New York. He told a story of an older colleague in the 5th circuit who explained that clerks should always have the same shoe size as their judge. Adrian, newly sworn to the bench, asked the old judge why. “So they can break in my new shoes,” replied the old Judge. Adrian explained to me that the practice of law as a young attorney would be the same…breaking in a partner’s new shoes, a judge’s new shoes, a client’s new shoes.When Adrian’s sister’s husband, my grandfather, died, he stood in the kitchen with me for hours, criticizing my roux making abilities…not enough oil, not enough color, not enough time. Finally, hours later he took his first bite of the gumbo and sad, “Not bad Texas, not bad.”Thanks Uncle A…
The ripples of the Judge’s influence on people to do their best with family, the law, and charity will be felt for a long, long time. Most people will not appreciate Duplantier as the source or inspiration of these ripples. Despite your good natured fondness for his ego, I don’t think he will be particularly worried that he may not receive the credit for these deeds and works yet to come.
“A” would be very proud of that writing…Thanks for the kind words…
I was just emailed the link that led me to your blog on the judge. Thanks for putting down what I’m sure we all felt. It’s funny that I too remember the little things that judge would say off-handedly. Like you, I treasure my time in section “H”.
Ernie- Great tribute for a great man.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Ernie – Very well said.
Sorry for your loss. I thought of how much you admired him as soon as I saw the notice in the TP.
Great piece E.