The L.A. Daily Journal invited me to write an essay on the problems of the pro per litigant in court based upon my experience. This is what I wrote:
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF A PRO SE/PRO PER
by JOHN CLARK
It’s 8:20 a.m., outside the Long Beach courthouse. The line is long, and it’s cold. I go to the front, there’s a sign that says “Attorneys only, show your ABA card”. I explain that I have to be in court in 10 minutes, I’m not an attorney, I don’t have a card, the traffic was horrendous, and I’m a pro per. Please? “Go to the back of the line”, I’m ordered, curtly. And so, twenty minutes late, I appear in court where, thankfully, somebody else’s matter is being heard.
Now I get my turn before the judge, it’s a post-judgment hearing, and he may be about to have me evicted from my home of 22 years, and there’s a real estate agent I dislike sitting there with my ex-wife’s attorney, about to give evidence.
“Appearances please”, says the judge, a seemingly genial, almost avuncular presence. He invites us to sit down, which we do. The agent is called; as I suspected, he tells the court that they could better market the property if I wasn’t there.
Now I get my turn. I explain that I have subpoenaed my agent I gave the listing to (because she is my tennis coach friend with a licence), and I recently took her over the entire 5 acre estate, especially to show that I am cooperating in the marketing and clean-up of this community property. I needed her desperately also to give evidence of the huge amount of valuables at the property, the impossibility of packaging and storing the contents quickly, my life-style, and how she witnessed the fact of the disappearance of all of my camera equipment from my office. Most of all that in these circumstances, I should certainly not be surprised by a summary eviction, but should be allowed a considerable amount of time to prepare, and, not least, find myself another place to live.
But she’s not here. So I submit my subpoena documents to prove they were served properly. My ex wife’s attorney explains to the court that she knows of this, and she’s very sorry but the agent isn’t there because she had to fly to Chicago to see her daughter. I protest, outraged, that’s not her client, how does she know this? The judge intervenes, amiably, and explains, astonishingly, that he would not hear from her anyway, so no harm done.
Session over, judge says there will be another hearing in a few days when some orders will be made. I wait until his calendar is over before I go to the court reporter for an expedited transcript of what happened, so I can write something about how the judge broke just about every rule in the book. She tells me firmly that I’m a pro per, I’ll have to wait, maybe 2 months if I’m lucky. I see the judge standing in the doorway of his chambers ready to leave, so I approach him – the bailiff stands and looks alarmed, hand on gun – and I respectfully tell his honor that I need a transcript to prepare for the next hearing. Lucky for me he cares about appearances and is concerned too, so tells the court reporter to please get me a copy expedited. With a grimace, she agrees to comply, seeing as he’s a judge.
Yes, this same judge, who had presided already over my trial that was due to start almost a year ago, and took place only a few weeks ago. Then, excited with the prospect of presenting my opening brief, a-brim with points and authorities (admittedly long on points and short on authorities), I’d been attending a pre-trial session the day before the trial was due to start at the downtown Central Division. This session was to deal with a contempt charge for not producing discovery documents fast enough to satisfy my ex-wife’s attorney. But now she admitted to the judge she had everything she wanted and that I had complied. I thought all was well. I was wrong. This was not good enough, I was informed from the bench, how would I feel about spending time in jail to give me time to dwell over my endless procrastination?
“That would be most interesting, but its my birthday today” was my wrong although honest reply. Which must have enraged the bench, because next thing I knew I was handcuffed and led away to the Twin Towers, head spinning, feeling as Kafka must have felt, and observing with a parting shot to the court “Well, we survived the Battle of Britain”.
And then in prison, to observe this weirdly silent parade of chained humanity sharing mass humiliation. Some in wheelchairs, which I naively thought meant that they were coming down especially hard on the disabled; the mindless crushing of ego, it certainly was interesting. Plenty of material to ponder for another day.
But as I sat there motionless for 4 hours on the narrow freezing stainless steel bench (“sit down, mister, no standing!”) waiting to be “processed in” (oh yes, strip, don’t move, bend over, spread your buttocks – now I was Alex in “A Clockwork Orange” contemplating a society gone crazy.) And then I was worrying about my friends waiting in a restaurant with 68 candles on a cake, and suddenly got hit with the thought that hey, who’s going to prison, me, or the attorney in me? I’ve got a trial starting tomorrow, and how do I get to go home to put together my documents lying strewn about on my floor so I can be ready to present my case?
A phone call allowed was enough to reach me an old lawyer friend who had his own reasons to help. He’d appeared before this same judge in his own divorce case, he had informed me that this judge had employed my opposing attorney in his own law-firm years before, and so when I was released the following day a fax was waiting at home, containing all of the wonders of Section 170.1 of the California Code of Civil Procedure concerning reasons for disqualification. A person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial. . . etc. etc. So that next day, I was able to call a halt to the trial, necessarily a few seconds before it began.
A halt, as it turned out, which lasted only a few weeks. An “independant” judge ha ha saw nothing wrong in my judge’s actions, sending the defendant to jail the night before trial was to begin was just fine with him.
And so my trial began at last. Before the same judge. This time a judge with a gleam in his eye.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
On the way home from Long Beach, I reflect that all is not lost. I will drive down to get the transcript in a few days, time enough to prepare a motion to show that I’m a good guy, and should not be evicted.
And I ask myself yet again why I should be doing this without any help, and remember that after three sets of very expensive attorneys – who did not appear to me to be acting for me, but rather for themselves – I was out of money. They had walked off with around $600,000 from my pocket, and there were 20 days of trial yet to come, and obviously bankruptcy stared me in the face.
But I also had to recall what I had told myself when I started on this long road, that I should be proud of what I was doing. An actor for 58 years, training even with Lee Strasberg himself; a director, producer, and teacher of drama; a coach and helpmate to my famous wife for 32 years. And a creative mission; about always inspiring others how to believably pretend to be someone else. “Tell no lies” always my watchword to the actors in their fantasy world. But here I was in several cases in several courtroom theatres, actually doing it for real.
Wow, irony! No pretense here, that’s for sure! A cut above. Would Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino or Robert De Niro risk doing that? I don’t think so!
Fast forward to the dreadful events of September 11, 2001. I’m on the phone to New York, are my kids o.k.? I can’t ask my ex-wife, because at trial the judge granted her request for a restraining order, spelling out no contact of any kind. But the kids live in Manhattan, and one of them, I believed, was working in that other set of Twin Towers. Since they don’t communicate with me, I really don’t know how to find them. But after a few agonized inquiries I make contact, and it seems they’re all right. Terrorism averted, at least in this family. Or is it?
Two days later, 2 police cars appear outside my house. A paying film crew was about to record 4 pretty girls cavorting on my tennis court. They thought the police had come for them, and left real fast. But they had instead come for me. I was given an hour to pack a suitcase and “get my things” and leave.
Things? A lifetime of collected “things”, and I’m out of there? As it was, time only to hook up my trailer to my pickup, charge the battery which was flat, and off to endure 6 months of winter in a trailer park.
And so, feeling like some sort of poster-boy for pro pers, and now forcibly retired, I resolve to write a handbook about my experiences in, through, and maybe soon out the other end of the Los Angeles Family Court system. (Is this my Community Service punishment? Maybe. Happy to do it. Let’s roll.)
[Did the Los Angeles Daily Journal (the bible of lawyers and judges hereabouts) print it? No, the editor Martin Berg turned me down, complaining that it was POSSIBLE TO IDENTIFY THE JUDGES’ NAMES THROUGH THE CASE NUMBERS. But subject to editing, it was well written, he assured me.]
ADDENDUM: Now I can reveal the names of everybody in attendance:
The judge was Judge Arnold Gold, highly regarded by the lawyer community. He had served time pro tem on the California Court of Appeal, 2nd Division I believe. My own (previous) attorney donated money for his retirement banquet. He retired after my case was finished, beyond Judicial oversight.
Opposing attorneys in attendance were Lynn’s Emily Edelman, Esq. and James A. Eliaser, Esq. to observe.
Missing and absent Coldwell Banker real estate agent (aka my friendly Malibu tennis coach) was Ellen Goodman, who ignored my summons to attend (forgiven by the court.)
Real estate agents who did attend were Topanga Canyon agents Jon Saver and Melissa Oliver (who I had not approved as my agents), supposedly representing Lynn Redgrave and later what turned out to be the court. They took possession of my property, giving me under $3,000 as my share
Who wasn’t there? My celebrity accuser, Lynn Redgrave, beyond my reach to question because Judge Gold allowed her to leave the country and his jurisdiction, and my ability to defend; leaving attorney Emily Edelmen in her shoes to lie for her, and of course she was not under oath. Trial procedures were not yet over!
My objections to Judge Gold’s procedures were reviewed by independent Orange County Supervising Judge Horne. Independent? His position as supervisor was secured by fellow judges’ votes, I later found out.