Ten years later I had my first chance to fight for justice as a lawyer in the courtroom. Fabio Dominguez didn’t read or speak English. I was a “Certified Student Attorney” still in law school but allowed to practice because I represented “legal aid clients,” those too poor to afford a lawyer. I was putting the Spanish I learned in high school and college to good use working in a Legal Aid office in South Jersey, with lots of farmworkers (why New Jersey is known as “The Garden State”). Fabio had bought a used car at Hansen Motors. The salesman had told him (in Spanish) that if anything went wrong in the next 30 days, just bring it back.
The legal problem for me was that the contract (written only in English) said Fabio was buying the car “as is.” Fabio told me that within a week of buying the car, he brought it back because it wasn’t running right. They tried to fix it he said, but he had to bring it in again. Finally, on the 30th day, still unsatisfied, he brought it back a third time, parked it, left the keys in it, and told them they can keep it. Several months later the Sheriff showed up at Fabio’s door with a Summons saying he owes Hansen Motors $2,000, the full purchase price in the contract. Lawyers call this an “acceleration clause,” the full amount comes due if you don’t keep up with your monthly payments. After getting the Summons, he came and saw me.
First I tried to settle the case, but the lawyer for Hansen Motors tells me (a) they don’t have a Spanish-speaking sales guy, and (b) they never got the car back! After he saw my responsive pleadings, he used the “impleader rule” to add Hansen’s insurance company to the case (in case the jury found that the car had been returned and then stolen off their lot).
Finally the Day for my First Jury Trial! All the lawyers (me, Hansen Motor’s, and the insurance company’s) are there in the Courtroom waiting for the Judge to finish up another matter. The Judge finishes and calls us all back into his office (called “chambers”). There were no lawyers in my family, I didn’t know any judges (other than the one who had convicted me ten years earlier), and law school had not prepared me for dealing with a vulgar judge. Once we were all in his chambers, even before he took his robe off and sat down, the Judge says gruffly “What the FUCK is this case all about?!” Though shocked at this kind of language coming from a judge, I was quick to be the first one to respond. While I’m explaining the facts, the Hansen Motor’s lawyer tries to regain the upper hand, jabs his finger at me and says, “Now look young man . . .” But I’m quick and interrupt him to say “Don’t you ‘young man’ me, this is lawyer-to-lawyer!”
“Yah! You tell him!” the Judge says, liking the swagger that comes with my tale of righteousness. And then the Judge went to bat for me. “Look,” he says, “here’s what we’re going to do. Dominguez pays 1/3rd. The Insurance Company pays 1/3rd. And Hansen eats 1/3rd.” We all have the sense that the Judge will be really tough on any party who doesn’t go along with the proposal, so I tell Fabio I think it is the best we can do even though it means him forking out $667 for nothing.
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